Securing Wisconsin's Future

Saturday, September 17, 2011
When my son was a baby, we used to visit storytime at the public library together. He loved it, crawling around the floor, mouthing the toys, nibbling on books. And I enjoyed it as well, particularly because of the social time I spent with other moms.

While this was a period in which I was on unpaid maternity leave from UW-Madison, and thus not actively teaching, when moms asked what I “did” I’d hesitantly reveal I was a professor. I got a lot of “oh wows” and “what’s that like?” and then after they learned about my field of expertise (higher education) I’d field many questions about how they were supposed to ever manage to get their kids into college. Their babies weren’t even yet one year old, but I was happy to answer. At the same time, I often felt an odd kind of guilt-—I was acutely aware that this wasn’t something I really had to worry about. My son was college-bound from the time he was conceived. Some of those other kids and their moms were going to have to really work at it.

Maternal education is one of the strongest predictors of children’s outcomes. If your mom finished a bachelor’s degree rather than only a high school diploma you are more than twice as likely to earn one yourself. This is partly but not entirely because moms with college degrees are much more likely to have good jobs and enjoy full employment, and thus are more able to afford college. But there are other reasons as well. College-educated parents (and this includes dads, who are incredibly important but less-often the primary caregiver) engage with their differently from the beginning. They obtain higher-quality prenatal care, are more likely able to spend time with their newborns given their more flexible and higher-paid employment, and they are fortunate enough to have the time to invest much more of their energy in endowing their kids with large vocabularies and enrichment activities that result in measurable advantages in test scores, even as early as kindergarten.

Most if not all children have kind and loving parents who take care of them, keep them safe, play with them, etc. But the kinds of things highly educated parents can buy and do with their children seem to provide a boost that’s very hard to match. (Schools, so far, don't seem up to the herculean task.)

Since colleges and universities have raised tuition far more often than governments have increased financial aid, a college education remains a difficult, expensive thing to procure in this country. Attendance is increasingly predicated on the level of education and wealth in your family—yes, that relationship is stronger now than ever. In this country, in statistical terms, people from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds have less of everything required for college—less wealth with which to buy homes near the best schools or purchase for test prep and tuition, less educational background to utilize when sifting through potential colleges, completing applications, and filling out FAFSAs, less job security on which to rely when it comes to taking time off for college visits. The list goes on. Those facts alone mean that the chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree are far, far less for Black, Latino, Native, and Southeast Asian children than for other children, especially if their parents don’t have college degrees—and very often, they don’t. The chance that a black student will attend college increases from 46% if his parents only attended high school to 84% if his parents graduated from college. But only 10.7% of blacks in Wisconsin hold bachelor’s degrees. Thus the cycle is long and vicious.

Many opponents of affirmative action want to ignore these facts. They want to pretend that it’s possible to compare black and white student with similar test scores, and test for “fairness” based on who is admitted. Sure, admitting a black student with a test score that is lower than that of a “comparable” white student seems unfair, but only if you insist on pretending that life begins when students file admissions applications. It is clearly eminently fair when you realize the incredible odds that most minority students had to beat in order to arrive at that same point of application, compared to the odds that most white students faced. The odds a person beat can provide important context that captures the unmeasured attributes of individuals. Admissions officers seek to admit the students most likely to benefit from and succeed in their universities. Perseverance, stamina, a family’s investment in a student’s success—all of these things are difficult to document and demonstrate in admissions files, but they enhance a student’s chances of success. Picking “winners” requires trying to include those unmeasurable factors when making decisions. Race is a proxy, and for now, the best one we’ve got.

Of course not all minority students would agree that they faced down long odds to get to the point of applying to college. Some are the children of doctors and lawyers who own their own homes and always expected their kids to get a college degree. Some blacks, like some whites, were born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. But overwhelmingly, this is not the case. In contrast, it is far, far more common for white students to have not faced down long odds to get to the same point. This is because, as Mitchell Stevens has written, “the organizational systems that deliver students to the point of selective college entrance remain structured in ways that systematically favor white and Asian American applicants over black and Latino ones.” And that matters. Stevens reports, “as copious scholarship makes clear, black and Latino students remain considerably less likely to become candidates for admission at the nation’s most prestigious schools than their presence in the general population would have us expect.”

The goal of affirmation action is to create an opportunity for deserving kids who haven’t had the opportunities they deserve. If we refused to use a proxy like race for “deserving but often denied opportunities” we would have to collect extensive personal information that nearly everyone would object to providing. Applications would quadruple in length, and admit rates would drop because there would be even more incomplete applications. If we instead decided not to bother using either a proxy or such intense data collection to facilitate the provision of such opportunities, the average value of the college degree would likely decline, a larger fraction of Wisconsin's population would remain mired in poverty, and there would be no hope of ever not needing programs like affirmative action.

So yes, it is tempting to think that starting college is the beginning point of life—-the point at which all can be fairly determined by a single test score. But college applicants are not born; they are raised. As Stevens says they are “delivered to the point of application by social systems that send children from different groups to this particular destination at different rates.” Pretending that the road to college is race-neutral is to close one’s eyes to the realities of daily existence in the United States. Acknowledging the role that race plays in structuring opportunity, and attempting to reduce the influence of race on those opportunities is not racism—and no, it is not reverse discrimination. Racism is assuming and acting like the color of one’s skin is inherently inferior, rather than acknowledge the problem lies in the way society treats the color of one’s skin. Those who seek to level the playing field do so by explicitly acknowledging that the trouble isn’t that someone is brown, it’s that brown people are treated terribly in this country. It’s far harder to admit that and seek to do something about it, than to deny reality and cry racism.

Those seeking to end affirmative action at UW-Madison need to remember these facts. There is an enormous payoff to a state’s investment in educating its minority students at its finest schools. Research demonstrates that admitting black students to more selective schools improves their chances of finishing college—not the opposite—and furthermore, these students generate bigger individual and social returns from their college degrees than do students whose college attendance is far more expected and much easier to obtain.

Furthermore, supporting affirmative action does not equate with supporting the denial of opportunities for white students. Far from it. This is a case where the benefits for minorities are large, and the costs for individual white students are very, very small. College opportunities abound for majority students, who attend college at very high rates and appear to succeed in completing degrees almost no matter where they attend. Denial from one college nearly always results in admission at another. Data from Wisconsin show that not attending one’s top choice college and instead attending another appears to have little to no impact on whether a student enjoys in and excels at college. In contrast, the great threat to ending affirmative action is that minority students will attain far fewer college degrees. And that would undoubtedly threaten the economic security of our state. None of our families can afford that risk.