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Few issues are as divisive or as potent as affirmative action in higher education. Attacks on race-sensitive admissions policies have led to the elimination or reduction of affirmative action in California, Texas, Florida and other states. And with a lawsuit against the University of Michigan expected to go before the Supreme Court, this unresolved debate is sure to return to the Ivy League, which has abided by past decisions. Yet, most of the rhetoric surrounding affirmative action misjudges the critical element of a student's "merit." Opponents of affirmative action often assume that black and Latino students are lacking in merit when compared with white students. There are many reasons to question this assumption. In 1998, the year affirmative action ended in California, the University of California at Berkeley rejected 800 minority applicants who had 4.0 GPAs and 1200 or higher on the SAT. Many of these students did not have access to Advanced Placement courses and test preparation classes that would have boosted their scores even higher. More significantly, SAT scores are good for only one purpose -- predicting first-year college grades -- and they do a weak job at that. There are no differences in graduation rates among students who score above 1100. And above a certain level, there is no evidence that the SAT indicates anything about one's potential for long-term success. Indeed, given the outstanding qualifications of most applicants, it is difficult to argue that any elite institution compromises merit when considering race in admissions decisions. In fact, the use of race actually serves to enhance merit in the long term. For example, black graduates of elite colleges are far more likely than their white counterparts to become involved in political, civic and community service activities, thus using their talents for the betterment of society. Black and Latino physicians are twice as likely to provide medical services to poor and under-served communities, whether or not they grew up in poverty themselves. Similarly, minority educators are more likely to teach in low-income areas, and black and Latino lawyers are more likely to pursue public interest work. These kinds of positive contributions, which have tangible, real-world benefits, represent true measures of merit -- and are far more important than first-year college grades. Moreover, while affirmative action policies should target individuals from low-income families, this is not a substitute for using race. Poverty is not solely a function of family income; community resources also matter. For example, 70 percent of blacks living in poverty reside in highly impoverished areas where the majority of residents are very poor. In contrast, only 30 percent of impoverished whites live in such areas, and poor and middle class white families generally have access to more wealth because they have more family members who are financially stable. Therefore, black and white families from similar economic backgrounds can lead very different lives, and black families -- even those who are relatively well off -- generally face more barriers to success. Affirmative action cannot make up for all of the obstacles that people of color face in American society. What it can do is highlight the unique potential of those who do well in spite of those barriers. And as many of these individuals give back to impoverished areas, they are making a contribution to society that test scores can't measure. Indeed, it is unfair to refer to students of color as mere "beneficiaries" of affirmative action. The students are not just benefiting from these institutions; society benefits from their training. With the growing diversity of the U.S. population, cultural competence is becoming increasingly important in all fields, from health care to education to business. The need for individuals who are motivated to work with diverse populations will continue to grow. While race is not the only factor to consider, it is an important one. Of course, not all people of color make the kinds of contributions I have mentioned. In the same vein, not all people with high SAT scores do well in college. There is no infallible way to predict who will make positive contributions to this university and society in general. But when looking at a group of highly qualified applicants, race is an important factor to consider. We should recognize that affirmative action is enhancing merit, rather than reducing it

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