The Supreme Court’s hearing of oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, a revisiting of affirmative action in education, has moved me to reflect on the matter. I find the idea of racial preferences of any kind distressing although I can understand the need for them to redress historic wrongs. That’s a need that is slowly evaporating with time. I have always thought the “critical mass” theory embraced by the Court in Grutter v. Bollinger was a crock, a thinly veiled argument for permanent racial discrimination.
The view I’m trying on for size right now is that the Court should abandon “critical mass”, return to correcting a prior history of racial discrimination as the sole basis for present systems of racial or ethnic preference, and subject any plan that is not race neutral to substantially more scrutiny than has been the case. For example, I think that any institution that has an admissions policy that is not neutral with respect to race should be required to make its admissions criteria public. I also think that redressing historic wrongs should be more narrowly tailored. So, for example, I believe that in order to qualify for such de facto quotas the individuals involved should be born in the United States of parents who are both members of the target race or ethnicity and born in the United States. I am aware that this would rule out many prominent beneficiaries of racial preference.
The Christian Science Monitor has grasped the right end of the stick on this question:
No matter how this divided court rules, what was missing from the arguments was any challenge to the idea that higher education has so few openings that it must dole them out through preferences, whether by race or – an alternative path – by income.
This notion of scarcity has long pervaded the ivy halls of academia. And yet it is being challenged today as never before. Universities are being forced to change by advances in online learning, by competition from for-profit schools, by a parent rebellion over tuition, and by cash-strapped governments demanding proof of skills learned.
Schools wouldn’t need to fight over issues like race if they would lift the perception of education as a limited good and adopt new ways to expand the pie of learning.
I’ve already made my suggestion for making higher education more available to all. How’s this for a more limited version? Have California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois band together, produce a full, accredited online two year degree program with credits fully transferable to four year institutions in those states at no or low charge?
It may be the case that you can’t completely replace four year institutions with online instruction but I find it hard to belief that an online program could not be developed that would be better than a lot of the community colleges out there.