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URM debate

Elliott Pearce | Monday, October 29, 2012

As many of you know, “Fisher vs. University of Texas,” a case that could determine the future of affirmative action in the U.S., is currently before the Supreme Court. This case has brought the debate over affirmative action to the forefront of the public consciousness. I am going to join this debate by arguing that the practice of accepting “under-represented minority” (URM, in college admissions parlance) applicants with weaker records of academic achievement than non-URMs harms the very people it aims to benefit. First, it curbs URMs’ academic achievement by placing them in difficult and discouraging environments where they are less likely to succeed than their counterparts. Second, it perpetuates negative stereotypes about the academic abilities of URMs by populating colleges and universities at all levels of selectivity with URM students that are less qualified than the rest of the student body.

All colleges and universities want to build diverse student bodies and to welcome people into the academic community from groups that have traditionally been denied access to higher education. Sadly, the disproportionately high poverty rates of certain races in this country have resulted in fewer members of these races being able to qualify for admission to elite universities than these universities would like to admit.

To make up for this difference, universities have been accepting URM students who would not ordinarily qualify for admission. For example, URMs admitted to Duke University scored an average of 140 points, or twelve percentiles (96th vs. 84th), lower on the SAT than non-URM admitted students. The SAT is only one measure of college readiness, but the study by three Duke University economists from which I took that number shows equally large disparities across all other categories that admissions counselors use to evaluate students. Likewise, other studies have shown that similar achievement gaps exist between URM and non-URM students at other universities, and not just the elite ones. Therefore, the URM students who show up on campus are less qualified, and therefore less prepared for college, than their classmates.

Proponents of affirmative action say that these less-prepared URMs universities admit to balance their racial compositions may face a rough start when they first get to college, but will quickly adjust and begin to fit in academically like any other students. The Duke study, however, demonstrates that this does not occur. It found that URMs are more than twice as likely to switch from “harder” majors (determined by average GPA and time spent studying) to “easier” ones. The study found that the majority of students who changed majors were passing their classes when they switched, so they did not leave because they could not handle their original courses of study. Rather, the authors of the study and I agree that the struggling URM students likely changed their majors because they felt that they “did not belong” in classes where they saw the other students consistently outperform.

Instead of showing them that they are as good as anyone else and that they can achieve anything they want to, being accepted to universities they would not ordinarily qualify to attend shows URM students that for the next four years, they will be a cut below their peers academically and that they cannot pursue the most challenging subjects their school offers without humiliation and frustration. Excellence and mediocrity, therefore, come to characterize different racial communities within the university. This is the opposite of what affirmative action is supposed to achieve.

If universities admitted only those URMs who were fully qualified to attend, there would be fewer URMs on the campuses of America’s elite universities, but each would know that he had his university’s full confidence that he could study anything with anyone. The other students would see these URMs performing at or above their own level and recognize that traditionally marginalized students can be just as intellectually capable. Furthermore, the less selective universities that educate the vast majority of America’s college graduates would not have their own qualified URM applicants stolen from them by the “elite” schools and would also be able to admit only those URMs who qualified.

Education is about much more than the name on one’s diploma. It’s time to start placing under-represented minority students in the educational environments they need to achieve their full human potential instead of stunting their academic achievements for the sake of promoting artificial diversity.

Elliott Pearce can be reached at Elliott.A.Pearce.12@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.