Race Has a Place in College Admissions

Students learn more, and learn more powerfully, in settings that include individuals from different backgrounds
By William D. Adams
Published in the Los Angeles Times
Opinion Section
December 29, 2002

Close observers of American higher education were not surprised by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to review two cases involving admission methods at the University of Michigan. Both cases, one concerning the law school's admissions practices and one its undergraduate admissions practices, challenge the university's use of race as a "plus factor" in deciding which students to accept. The school has maintained that a diverse student body provides educational benefits and says that considering race as a factor in admissions is essential to ensuring diversity.

The increasingly bitter struggle over affirmative action in college admissions has gradually eroded the legal and philosophical authority of the court's landmark decision in Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. In that case, the court held that, though quotas that set aside a fixed number of seats for minority applicants are not legal, educational institutions can consider race as a factor in deciding which applicants to admit. For better or worse, a new framework seems both inevitable and necessary.

What sort of framework is it likely to be? Since the court has avoided discussing Bakke for almost a quarter-century, it is impossible to say with certainty. But as the lawyers begin to sharpen their rhetorical positions, it is worth recalling two fundamental truths about American higher education at the beginning of this new century. The first concerns the educational value of diversity. Unlike employment practices, where remediation of the effects of past discrimination has been the primary philosophical and legal hinge of affirmative action, the legitimacy of seeking diversity through the admission process has been linked to educational purposes and effects. That linkage is grounded in the notion that students learn more, and more powerfully, in settings that include individuals from many different backgrounds and perspectives.

At the time of the Bakke decision, this notion was still somewhat theoretical at highly selective liberal arts colleges. My own institution, Colby College, was in 1978 composed largely of white, middle-class students from suburban Boston and New York. In the environment of the residential college, where interaction among students and faculty is at the core of the educational process, homogeneity placed severe limits on the exploration of many issues in American life and history.

Graduates of that era report feeling unprepared for the world they were destined to work and live in. After a recent visit to the campus, one Colby alumnus from the late 1960s told me how struck he was by the evident change in the intellectual tone and atmosphere of the college since his graduation. He attributed that change in part to increased diversity. "When I graduated," he said, "I knew the one African American in my class. It was a very confining and somewhat complacent world."

Since the 1970s, with growing skill and assurance, top liberal arts colleges have been learning how to capitalize on the educational promise of diversity. At Colby, we have made great strides, but still have a long way to go before we have anything close to a representative student body. Last year, students of color from the U.S. constituted roughly 12% of the first-year class.

No one closely associated with the daily realities of our institutions would disagree with the assertion that greater diversity has made us better where it matters most--in our ability to deliver a powerful and relevant educational experience to our students. Colby's classrooms are now more likely to produce the kind of conversations and thinking our students will need to be successful in the world and to contribute to it in meaningful ways.

The opponents of affirmative action have tried to reduce the educational pursuit of diversity to the mechanical application of racial preferences. Racial differences are important to any meaningful notion of diversity, but at every liberal arts college I am acquainted with, the commitment to diversity is multifaceted. We have dedicated considerable effort and financial resources, for instance, to recruiting students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and we have consistently sought diversity of talents--athletes, bassoonists, debaters--in the construction of each class.

More recently, we have increased dramatically the number of international students on our campuses, as well as students from all regions of the U.S. All of these differences have educational value and significance for our students and faculty, and most are considered, though never mechanically, in admission decisions.

Precisely because of the enormous significance of diversity to the educational mission of colleges and universities, any serious diminution of our ability to consider those differences in the admission process would have profoundly negative consequences for the quality of the experience we provide. And our ability will be diminished if the legitimacy of considering race, among other factors, is not preserved in any legal framework replacing Bakke.

The importance of such latitude is particularly apparent at this time of year, when admission decisions are being made. I recently traveled to New York to interview a number of candidates who were identified by a unique program that introduces colleges and universities like Colby to candidates from schools and backgrounds not typically represented in our applicant pools.

The remarkable individuals we talked to, about 20 in all, were clearly eager, and for the most part ready, to take advantage of a Colby education. The objective credentials of the 10 we ultimately selected--their SAT scores, for instance--differ from those of their typical potential classmates. But these differences were not and should not be decisive in our admission of those students, in view of the larger purposes and goals of the college. Without the ability to consider attributes other than abstract and quantitative academic markers, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to bring such students to Colby.

The matter does not end here, however. We have told ourselves for a very long time, and rightly so, that broad access to higher education is one of the principal guarantors of equal opportunity in American life. We should not be surprised or displeased, then, by the positive effect that greater diversity on college and university campuses has had on American society as a whole.

As students leave our institutions to confront the challenges of a multicultural world, they have the tools to help the rest of us cope more productively with the racial, cultural and ethnic differences that constitute both our national glory and our greatest challenge. This is not so much about the remediation of the effects of past discrimination as it is about affecting positively the country's social relations in the future. A more compelling interest is hard to imagine.

Several years ago, a fund-raising trip took me to an airport where I happened to talk with the owner of the local shoeshine concession, an elderly African American man. He was curious about what I did for a living. When he learned of my institutional affiliation, he noted with quiet pride that one of his seven children had graduated from that very place nearly two decades earlier. With even more pride, he went on to inform me that his son had just been named the deputy attorney general of his state.

The story is memorable for several reasons, and not least in its affirmation of what we have espoused since the republic was formed about the tight bond between democracy and education. The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to secure a crucial link in that chain.