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Is Affirmative Action In Jeopardy On College Campuses?

Affirmative action and other set-asides for minorities and women have come under increasing fire in recent years. These programs, first started decades ago, were once a given in higher education for everything from admission to financial aid. Today, women and minority students cannot count on the same level assistance from affirmative action that their parents may have received. The backlash against affirmative action comes largely from the group that feels damaged by these programs--white males. As the standard of living for African Americans in the United States has risen, whites claim that the “leg up” provided by set-aside programs constitutes an unfair advantage. Similarly, white males point out that since women now make up the majority of college students, they can hardly claim discrimination.

The critics of affirmative action promote a merit-based system, in which admission and scholarships are awarded to the most worthy, with race or gender not considered at all. The exclusively merit-based system, however, has itself come under attack. Supporters of affirmative action claim that there is no fair way to determine merit. Tests, like the SAT, have always produced a mark disparity in results between blacks and whites. Other factors used to rank college applicants, such as grade point averages and advanced placement classes, vary widely from one school to another.

In fact, many minority leaders claim that there is no completely objective way to measure ability. They believe that a person’s background or the obstacles he/she may have overcome are just as important as grades and standardized tests. According to affirmative action supporters, the merit system fails to produce an element vital to higher education--diversity. This, they say, is necessary for a well-rounded college experience, as well as for societal stability. Despite the rhetoric and passions on both sides, the future of affirmative action is likely to be determined by the courts, not by the activists. Recent state court rulings have upheld policy changes in key states such as Texas, Florida, and California, that now restrict how schools can use race and gender as factors in determining admission. Although the Supreme Court has not yet issued a definitive ruling, two things are now apparent. First, race cannot be the sole factor in determining admission. Second, when race is one of the factors, the school must demonstrate a compelling interest for the government to allow it. Exactly what constitutes a “compelling” interest remains to be seen.

In order to maintain diversity on their campuses, universities have developed innovative ways of achieving the same goals without violating the new restrictions. Often called a “holistic” method, some schools now consider a variety of factors besides grades and test scores. For example, students who had a difficult home life or had to work during their high school years in order to help support their family may get special consideration. Furthermore, corporations and various private foundations have increased their funding for minority scholarships in order to make up for any drop in federal or state-sponsored aid. It is unlikely that affirmative action will be completely eliminated. Too many schools are committed to maintaining a diverse student body. College administrators will find one way or another to achieve balance in their admissions. However, if the current trends continue, women and minorities will need to seek out new sources of college financial aid, and develop new strategies for gaining entrance to the nation’s top universities.


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