I Want To Make It On My Own Merits

Family context seems to shape our perceptions of affirmative action and so, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the University of Texas affirmative action case, the discourse on the subject has increased and emotions from all sides is palpable.

As educators, how do we engage youth in dynamic, respectful, yet honest
conversations about affirmative action? How do we ensure students stay connect to and proud of their heritage when discussing a topic that is emotionally charged?  In my experience, many young people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds communicate a sense of shame when they vehemently share their opposition to affirmative action, sharing, “I want to make it on my own merits”.

It’s true they should be admitted to college because of their own merits and they are, but the fact remains we live in a society tainted by economical and educational inequities. Most top colleges and universities do not make regular visits to poorer, urban high schools, even if they are in the same area to visit private schools. That in and of itself means the top students at an under-resourced high school do not have the same basic access to competitive schools as others. The blame can be placed many places, but the point here, is, students lose.

College admissions is contextual, too. If 50 students from the same high school apply to the same college, they will inevitably be competing against each other. Once a portion of those students are deemed promising, they then compete against other students in the state and so on. It’s no secret competitive high school curriculum is central to college admission. True some colleges take the time to understand the context of each high school, but it’s impossible to do that for every applicant. Therefore, a student who takes the most competitive classes at a high school that doesn’t offer AP courses and does well, is going to be hard pressed to compete against another student who takes the most competitive classes at a school that offers numerous AP courses. Both demonstrate potential, but the first may not ever have the chance to realize her potential because of where she comes from.

Diversity is a priority at many well-known colleges, yet when they successfully admit and retain a student body that is geographically, racially, ethnically, religiously, by interest etc, some still receive push back from its own. Take Smith College, for example. The top liberal arts college has made impressive strides in its diversity efforts, but recently an alumna expressed extreme dissent at the direction the college is going in, concluding:

I can tell you that the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate because it is this demographic that puts their name on buildings, donates great art and subsidizes scholarships. Click here for the entire story.

Whether the key factor is race, gender, sexuality, economics etc, controversies like the one at Smith highlight how many categorize the “haves and have nots” is unchanged from years past and it seems the gap between the two not only exists, but impacts access to higher education.

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2 Comments

Filed under College Access

2 responses to “I Want To Make It On My Own Merits

  1. Nice, balanced reflections on this difficult topic. I wish those students who want to be evaluated “on their own merits” could understand that their heritage and ethnicity in fact are one of their merits. We want groups of students who represent a broad set of views and backgrounds, and being able to bring underrepresented perspectives to the table is a plus for everyone. That’s also what I took from the Smith College discussion you mention. I gathered a few thoughts at “Two lessons on diversity from Smith College” at http://curt-rice.com
    Good luck with your work on this topic!

    • Thank you for your thoughts – I just read through the post on your site. Your comments re: SATs and students from more diverse backgrounds not feeling included are two areas I think are often misunderstood and manipulated. The fact that a number of top institutions are beginning to change policies on SATs reflects a trend towards recognizing college admission is no longer about numbers in a sea of students who ALL have good numbers. I also continue to find it curious that two (historically) important parts of college admission, the SAT and APs, are administered by College Board. To their credit, they acknowledge the SAT is not definitive, but they are still making money off these requirements.

      And to your second point, I think you’re absolutely right. To admit a more diverse student body basically means more marketing and to retain a more diverse student body means valuing the power of diversity as part of intellectual discourse and that takes leadership and time.

      Again, thanks so much for commenting! We’re just getting started and your perspective is important to help get us going.

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