A poll recently came out that discusses the merits of affirmative action, yet again. Most people are confused or misinformed about what affirmative action actually does in terms of education and we see evidence of this in a quote from the poll:

A slight majority of whites, about three-quarters of blacks and more than two-thirds of Hispanic respondents favored affirmative action programs more generally. “Americans are not averse to having the government take steps to help improve the conditions of minority groups in the United States, and in a broad sense express support for affirmative action programs,” the report says.

But these same groups voted overwhelmingly against affirmative action in college admissions. So where did we lose you?

It seems to me that people are in favor of most things, as long as it does not directly affect them, even if it is an illusion that it directly affects them. And the perception is that messing around with the number of spaces available directly affects one’s chances of getting into the college of their choice. When I was working in college-access, there were a number of private donors who put stipulations on their donations, namely that we would not put applications to any Ivy League or otherwise competitive school for the students with whom we were working. And we know historically the number of times groups said that people of color should be able to live wherever they wanted…as long as it was not near them.

We also have to remember one truly important detail–colleges and universities can accept as many people as they want. They can hire more professors or simply do more to retain the ones they have. I’m sure my former doctoral student colleagues can echo that sentiment especially considering the horrendous job market. It seems so odd that thousands of students are rejected from universities each year while scores of would-be professors sit on their doctorate degrees because jobs are supposedly unavailable. While I am not advocating to do away with a standard, I also remind myself that the students who enter universities with the worst GPAs and test scores, the student athletes, most often graduate before or at the same time as their non-athlete colleagues with decent GPAs. Why? They receive resources such as tutoring and academic counseling unlike their peers; it just goes to show what one can do with support.

The dilemma with admissions is that universities are ranked based on the number of students who apply and are rejected. Of course there are a number of other data points–number of Nobel laureates; number of tenured professors; and graduation rates, for example–but it seems to me that the most problematic piece is the data point that asks how many students can the university lure into applying only to crush their dreams by rejecting them.

Whenever debates around affirmative action begin, the question of merit comes up. People use merit to argue what one truly earned as though we each earn something in the same way. We know that women, for example, are paid less for doing the same work. Already, we can say that is unfair. What if that same woman is a single mother and in order for her to get to the same end product, she had to do more according to social responsibility than her male counterpart? How do we level that inequity?

So here are some anecdotes about the students with whom I’ve worked.

Debra (I’ve changed the names) had a research paper due for her History class. She was assigned a contemporary topic which meant that she had to use the internet to do her research. Debra did not own a computer, in part due to the expense, but also because having a computer in her home, in her gang-neighborhood, would almost certainly guarantee that she would be robbed. In her city of only African Americans and Latinos, one would not be able to find an internet cafe or even a public library with computer access (same burglary issue). And our school did not have computers available to students. We also knew that being able to write a research paper is a critical part of college success. So what did Debra do? Her mother told her that her aunt, who lived a few cities over, owned a laptop, but she did not have internet access either. So Debra, mom, and the other kids packed into the car on a Saturday and drove to the aunt’s house to borrow the computer. They then drove a few more cities over to a shopping center that had a Starbucks. While mom and kids walked around the shopping center, Debra sat in a corner just outside the Starbucks (to avoid having to purchase something she could not afford) and did as much research as the one-hour time limit would allow. In the end, she earned a B on the paper. That grade could not account for her resourcefulness or the amount of critical thinking it takes to do comprehensive research including citations in an hour (frankly, it is taking me longer to write this). So should her B mean the same as the B another student earned on her/his research paper, when the other student did not have to jump over as many hurdles?

I worked at another school who was rightfully concerned with the drop-out rate for students of color so they implemented one of the strangest grading policies that I have ever encountered. For students who would potentially fail, it was great because the percentages were weighted in such a way that no one would ever have a grade so low that s/he would never be able to pass. As I’ve seen most often in schools, students may fail one test and have a percentage so low that they just give up. This policy meant that there would never have a grade so low to justify just giving up. But for the higher-achieving students, the category weights made it harder to earn an A. The result? The valedictorian, who was a student of mine, had a GPA of 3.2. As the valedictorian, one would assume that at least guarantees options, for this student it meant that she could not gain admissions to many schools and certainly not with the funding package her family so desperately needed. How do ensure students such as her have all considerations made during the application process?

I also recognize where one would argue, even in the above, that class seems to be the greater factor in determining the life chances. I could mention that in the first instance, there were no White students in the entire school. In the second instance, there was one White student, of over 3,000 students. In each instance, both schools had about 60% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their family incomes were at or below the poverty line. In both of the instances above, neither of those students qualified. And I do get irked whenever we start talking about things being about class and not race, and then we uses different markers for class and the only change in the outcome are a few White kids who grew up in the hood surrounded by people of color. From a purely statistical vantage point, does that mean race doesn’t matter? Hardly.

What do you think? Where do you stand in the affirmative action debate?