Wednesday, December 31, 2003


I had promised to get back to John Bruce's post on affirmative action in admissions. He adds a valuable new perspective by looking at the admissions policies of post-WW2 Dartmouth, through the eyes of Albert Dickinson, the dean of admissions for the first part of the post-war period. Dickinson valued diversity, though not the kind promulgated in the post-Bakke world. The qualities he sought in admission to Dartmouth were:John goes on to discuss how these goals made admission to selective colleges democratic, meritocratic, individualistic, and "based on stewardship of the institution's scarce resources for the greater good." I'll quibble over the last of those, because the university is mostly interested in its own mission, which may or may not be for the greater good. (John points out that Dartmouth had education of Native Americans as part of its mission.) Private, selective schools may have any number of missions, but those that continuously lose money seldom forward "the greater good" for very long.

I've worked at a couple of selective colleges as well as at SCSU, and I have seen some of the homogeneity of the student body in the selective colleges that John is most concerned about. What I would take issue with is his analysis of the "other 75 percent" who are non-selective. He suggests that affirmative action is not important to those universities:

The problems with affirmative action in admissions have applied almost entirely to disputes over the selective admissions process, from Bakke to the recent Michigan cases. This is simply because if there's no "loser" in the process, someone who feels he or she was rejected when a less-qualified applicant was admitted, there's no dispute. The point has been made that all controversy regarding affirmative action in admissions applies only to the 25 percent of US institutions that are, given current demographics and the available resources, selective. For 75 percent of schools, there are no grounds for dispute; every qualified applicant will be admitted. Even those who have been plaintiffs in landmark cases have been able easily to obtain admission at other institutions.
That would be true only if admission to a state university or other non-selective school is not a scarce good, that additional seats are available that cost the university zero. That's not true on two points. Education may seem like a public good, but it is congestible. Teaching and learning changes with class size; it also changes as you add less-prepared students into a class with better-prepared ones. If admissions occur with prejudice towards any group, you necessarily admit less-prepared students from the favored group, with increasing costs to the university. Now if there is a benefit to the university from the prejudicially treated group, it may be that a few more should be admitted, but only to the point where total marginal benefit equals total marginal cost -- to the student, to other students in the class, to the instructor and to the university. There is no evidence that I can find, however, that this line of thought has been pursued at SCSU or any other school.

A significant part of that cost, and my second point, is that schools no longer just engage in affirmative action in the admissions process. Once admitted, students of the protected group are also protected from failure; a high failure rate for minority students is seen as a curricular problem. This gives rise to changes in the curriculum that "encourages diverse populations to succeed". This affects both the core curriculum and creates new programs designed to attract the target audience. Neither of these, I argue, are healthy developments for the university.

UPDATE:John replies. That guy writes faster than I do, which I thought was one of my better qualities. Is the debate over affirmative action a management issue? Sure it is, in part. But that just passes the question on to: Why do college administrators consistently get this wrong? The answer is, because they live in fear of the discrimination lawsuit. "Everyone knew" that the Civil Rights Act was not to lead to quotas, as Hubert Humphrey famously assured us, but risk aversion led to quotas anyway. If Grutter leads to genuine treatment of individuals as individuals, and courts respect the MB=MC decisions on each one in which university admissions people engage, then John is correct. And that appears to be what Texas A&M is doing ... and behold the heat they are taking. The University of Texas, however, thinks the law lets them use race explicitly.