Friday, October 17, 2008

Merit is More than Numbers

By Jose J. Soto and Deborah Waire Post

Most people think of affirmative action in the context of access to education. Whether we call it affirmative action or diversity, there is a widely shared belief that any process that considers race or gender in evaluating an application for admission is unfair. Actually, the reverse is true.

Those of us who support affirmative action also oppose an admissions policy that relies exclusively on numbers because we believe that a person is more than a number. Schools and testing agencies promote the use of test scores or an index created from the grade point average and the test scores to decide who is in and who is out. In the rarified world of psychometricians, a point difference on a test score may be meaningless, but in the imaginations of parents and students, "fair" means who are "first" or who has the highest number. What most parents do not know is that the game is rigged. Just as an “A” in an honors English class is worth more than an “A” in a regular English class, an “A” from an elite school is worth more than an “A” from a school farther down the educational pecking order.

A fair admissions process would evaluate our children as individuals, not as numbers. Who are they, what have they done, what might they achieve if they are given an opportunity to attend this school or university? Merit cannot be assessed in the abstract. Merit is about achievement and it is about character.

There is an old cliché: "You are where you are from." Each of us is from a place and also from a family and a community. All of these have an effect on our character. If we can refer to the way our religious beliefs shape our commitment to social justice, why can't we talk about the history of our own families and how they have struggled to overcome racial prejudice or discrimination? Is this any less relevant than the struggle of a student who grew up poor or in a home with a single parent who struggled to make ends meet? Why would we seek to erase from any consideration of character the very things that make each person unique?

If life experiences matter, then why can't we consider the obstacles that had to be overcome by a student raised on an Indian reservation, in a racially segregated neighborhood, in Appalachia, or by parents who immigrated to this country when the student was just a child?

The idea that a consideration of race and gender is a preference is an absurdity. Eliminating race and gender from consideration when we continue to examine other life experiences that applicants use to explain why they should be admitted disadvantages women and minorities. It impairs the ability of admissions officers to evaluate candidates fairly. Let's say that one applicant describes the experience he had on a sports team where he learned about team work and leadership. Could a young woman describe her experience on a woman's volleyball or soccer team without running the risk that the authors of the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative would say that she is asking for a "preference" on the basis of gender? The fact is that sports are segregated by sex and that a federal statute mandates equal funding for women's sports.

Colorado and Nebraska have affirmative action referenda on the ballot on November 4, but advocates for “colorblind” programs have threatened to eventually place similar initiatives in all 50 states. While they don't touch the federal statute, in some cases they would make a boy's discussion of sports appear "neutral," but a girl's discussion of sports would raise questions of "preference" on the basis of sex or gender. In reality, there would be no "preference" when race and gender are considered along with any number of factors that create the character of applicants to any institution of higher education. Proponents of these referenda would have you believe that is the case, but it is simply not true. The only thing these referenda would do is turn our children into ciphers and the admissions process into a numbers game.

Are your children more than a number?
Soto, is vice president for affirmative action, equity, and diversity at Southeast Community College Area in Lincoln, NE. Post is professor of law at Touro Law Center and co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers in Central Islip, NY.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08