In 2006, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2, ending state-sponsored discrimination via race-based preferences in college admissions, hiring, and contracting. But a recent federal court ruling has temporarily overturned the will of Michigan voters, opening the door for affirmative action’s return to Michigan.
This would restore the racial favoritism that existed for decades at the University of Michigan and other public universities. And if race-based preferences return without any other intervention, we will see the perpetuation of an unintended consequence of affirmative action that does a great disservice to minority students but rarely gets discussed: academic mismatch.
"Many of these students were thrust into an environment in which they were almost certain to fail."
Before Proposal 2, the Center for Equal Opportunity found that black and Hispanic high school students with a GPA of 3.20 and an SAT score of 1240 had roughly a 90 percent chance of being admitted to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, while Asians and whites with the same academic credentials had only about a one in 10 chance of being accepted.
Once admitted, though, black students were about five-and-a-half times more likely to be on academic probation than white students (36.5 percent vs. 6.5 percent) and had an average GPA six-tenths of a point below white students (2.73 vs. 3.34).
Further, almost one out of every three black students (32 percent) failed to graduate from the University of Michigan within 6 years, compared to only one out of every nine white students (11 percent), according to the NCAA.
Instead of attending a less competitive but still very good university, many of these students were thrust into an environment in which they were almost certain to fail. Academic mismatch did a great disservice to many minority students, who might have achieved much greater academic success -- a higher GPA, a lower chance of being on academic probation, and a greater chance of graduating -- at a less prestigious institution.
If we must accept the return of affirmative action, allow me to facetiously suggest a proposal to solve the academic mismatch problem: “affirmative action grading” in the classroom. Race-based preferences and double standards at the point of admission are obviously not enough to guarantee academic success and graduation. We should supplement it with a similar practice in the classroom.
Affirmative action grading would work simply: minority students would be evaluated according to an adjusted grading scale, given longer time to take exams, and be excused from certain homework assignments. This would increase minority students’ GPA, reduce the likelihood that they will be on academic probation, and increase their chances of graduating.
If you correctly condemn affirmative action grading as an unfair and unjust practice that would distort higher education, you should ask how it differs materially from affirmative action in admissions.
Supporters of affirmative action in college admissions face some tough questions.
Is it consistent to support affirmative action when practiced by a staff member in the admissions or financial aid office of a university in one building on a college campus, but not support "affirmative action grading" when practiced by a college professor on that same college campus in another building?
If race-neutral grading is the accepted standard for the treatment of students in the classroom, can race-based preferences be justified when selecting students for admission to the university in the first place?
The challenges revealed in these questions and the obvious unacceptability of academic favoritism in the classroom with affirmative action grading explains why Michigan voters ended racial favoritism in college admissions in 2006.
College students in Michigan are treated as individuals without regard to race by university professors once they enter college and start taking classes. Treating all students as individuals by college admissions officers when they first apply to college will ultimately move us further along toward the ideal of a colorblind society than bringing back admissions practices involving double standards, special preferences, and racial discrimination.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy said: "Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial discrimination."
Hopefully, President Kennedy's vision will prevail in Michigan and the current prohibition of state-sponsored racial discrimination will be upheld by the courts.
Mark Perry is a visiting scholar at AEI.