Higher education is not a toaster oven.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration intends to take on affirmative action in the higher education admissions process, investigating and suing institutions which, it believes, employ admissions criteria that discriminate against Caucasian applicants. Finally, white kids who want to go to college catch a break!
Considering that the crux of Donald Trump’s pitch to the proverbial White Working-Class Voter in 2016 can be fairly summarized as “Scary, scary brown people are coming for your jobs and your communities and your country, muahahahahaha, MAGA,” it’s not particularly surprising that a Department of Justice under his direction would make a big show of insinuating that seats in the classroom are being unfairly leeched from the more deserving real Americans (read: white people), too. Interested DOJ lawyers have been asked to submit their résumés for consideration by August 9, so any zealous advocates looking to fulfill a lifelong dream of bringing down the giant system of handouts to minority kids that is the American education system will have a whole week to embellish their credentials accordingly.
Here, very briefly, is what affirmative action looks like right now: Schools are not allowed to use “quotas” when composing an incoming class. They are, however, permitted to use policies that consider race as a sort of “soft factor” in admissions decisions, since the Supreme Court has held that colleges and universities have a compelling educational interest in promoting diversity within their corridors. This rationale has barely survived a series of increasingly robust challenges of late, and it leaves admissions officers in what has to be a profoundly uncomfortable bind: They can consider race, but not too much. It seems that the Trump administration, at the very least, believes that schools are creeping closer and closer to reviving quotas. And if the DOJ’s efforts to narrow the scope of permissible practices prove successful, they’ll likely attack diversity-based affirmative action in short order, too.
Whether you believe affirmative action is good or bad boils down to whether you think that higher education is a public good or a commodity that should simply be sold to the highest bidder. If you believe that the benefits of colleges and universities—which serve as a “training ground” for leaders in business and politics and science and arts and whatnot, and which are heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars, and which fight things like entrenched, multi-generational poverty much more effectively than, say, a poorly-produced PSA in which a D-list celebrity yells about “bootstraps”—should accrue to everyone, regardless of what they look like, then you probably think affirmative action is, overall, good. On the other hand, if you believe that higher education is a commodity that should be bought and sold on a largely-unregulated open market, like an iPhone or a tennis lesson or a toaster oven, then you probably believe affirmative action is bad.
Do you think that higher education is a toaster oven? Why hello, fellow white dude! It is time to grow up. Higher education is a resource that is as scarce as it is valuable, and to insist on allocating it strictly on the basis of grade-point averages and standardized test scores and whatever boring summer internship you held down after junior year ignores both this country’s history of pernicious, invidious, systemic discrimination, and also the obligations that such an institution has to serve the society that supports it. People who reserve a special level of vitriol for the practice also tend to forget that a rejected applicant is often likelier to be passed over for a less-qualified-on-paper legacy admit than for a less-qualified-on-paper minority student. Blaming dashed dreams solely on affirmative action is a lazy, knee-jerk response that fosters the same brand of simmering resentment toward minority groups that Donald Trump and company rode all the way to the White House.
I, like you, aspire to live in a giant meritocracy in which everyone has equal access to everything. But to say that this exists already, and that zero additional safeguards are necessary to ensure that America’s schools approximate, well, America, is delusional. Colleges and universities today cling to the tiniest bit of discretion in the way they choose to admit aspiring students, and now, the administration is fixing to come for that, too, under the guise of rooting out discrimination against white people. It’s a stupid, misguided, dishonest maneuver that, if successful, would make only make this country a more divided and less equal place. But as Donald Trump has ably demonstrated over the last six months, for him, that’s a feature, not a bug.
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