Academic merit is most important

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Article Highlights

  • "The ending of overt racial preferences in college admissions is overdue," writes Richard Vedder.

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  • Allowing things like skin color to largely determine admission decisions seems morally suspect.

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  • Caution is needed to avoid socioeconomic-based admission standards.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: Could a conservative Supreme Court decision create a more progressive college admissions process?

The ending of overt racial preferences in college admissions is overdue. Allowing things like skin color to largely determine admission decisions strikes me as morally suspect and inconsistent with a society that historically has emphasized merit over race and family backgrounds in the selection of potential students and employees.

The disproportionately poor academic outcomes of minorities further suggest our policies need re-thinking, and the Supreme Court may provide the catalyst. Excellent scholarly work by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, and earlier by Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, shows that often affirmative action has pushed minority students into inappropriate academic environments where they have floundered, whereas they would have done better both academically and economically if racial preferences were not in effect.

I think good will likely come of a ruling against colleges in the Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas case. It is not only legal and moral but arguably great and virtuous to select students partially on the basis of socioeconomic criteria. Taking more poor students, for example, arguably promotes the American Dream of equality of opportunity, but also works to support minority admissions. It is unfair and wrong to accept a black child from a prosperous college-educated family with a $200,000 income while rejecting an equally qualified white person from a poor household with a $40,000 income where the parents never attended college. A color-blind admission policy accepting family economic circumstances as one criterion for admissions, however, is both fair and coincidentally promotes racial as well as economic diversity.

Yet caution is needed to avoid socioeconomic-based admission standards causing the same problems identified by Sander and Taylor -- academic admissions criteria must be of major importance.

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