Affirmative Action

What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

The Supreme Court and the court of public opinion are both shifting against race-based affirmative action in college admissions.


University of Texas at Austin
Allison Fang / Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court and the court of public opinion are both shifting against race-based affirmative action in college admissions. But that doesn't mean acceptance to a university will be based purely on merit any time soon.

In a recent interview with Inside Higher Ed, Georgetown University Law Professor Sheryll Cashin—author of the new book, Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in Americaargued that geographic considerations should replace racial ones:

Q: Could the places designated for affirmative action include those where the disadvantaged people are white? Could a college, for example, specify rural poor people (of any race) who live in low-income areas as people on whom to focus?

A: Absolutely, assuming the college does not focus only on the rural poor. There are deserving strivers in cities and struggling suburbs, too. A high-achieving student from a low-opportunity place (e.g., where more than 20 percent of their peers are poor) is deserving of special consideration, regardless of his or her skin color. No one deserves affirmative action simply because they have dark skin or because her parent is an alumnus of her dream school. In addition to helping high-achieving students who are actually disadvantaged, place-based affirmative action has the benefit of encouraging rather than discouraging cross-racial alliances among the majority of Americans who are locked out of resource-rich environs. 

Q: You note the backlash (legal and political) against affirmative action in its current forms. Do you think place as opposed to race would attract more support?

A: Yes, I do. In chapter five of the book, entitled "Reconciliation," I cite the example of the Texas 10 Percent Plan and the coalition of strange bedfellows that supports it. The plan guarantees admission to a public college to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state. It was enacted by the Texas Legislature, after a temporary court ban on race-based affirmative action, with the support of blacks, Latinos and a lone rural Republican who realized that his constituents were not gaining entrance to the University of Texas. The law ended the dominance of a small number of wealthy high schools in UT admissions and it changed the college-going behavior of high achievers in remote places that had never bothered to apply to UT Austin. Of course, parents in wealthy school attendance zones have repeatedly attacked the plan as unfair, but in the Texas House of Representatives, white Republicans from rural districts, blacks and Latinos strongly support the plan and have insulated it from repeal. The end result is a successful public policy that enhances opportunity across the state and a more cohesive politics—at least on the issue of access to higher education. Percentage plans are not the only solution but this illustrates the type of transformative policies and politics that diversity advocates could achieve with fresh thinking.

Admissions systems based on "place, not race" are increasingly popular among people who want to promote diverse campuses in race-neutral ways. Expect geography-based affirmative action to become the default as state legislatures and courts continue to recognize mounting public opposition to racial preferences.

And though supporters of individual liberty should be glad to see the demise of race-based affirmative action, they should also demand that more be done to combat the widespread and unconscionable practice of  birthright-based affirmative action and influence-based affirmative action.

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  1. What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

    I vote for freedom. Let private colleges admit whoever they want, based on whatever criteria they want.

    State colleges, as arms of the state, are and should be prohibited from discriminating against anyone based on race, sex, etc. Other than that, have a ball, guys.

    1. Sounds about right.

    2. How about based on the quality and originality of your porn video?

      1. creating incentives…….

    3. Define “race”. What do you mean by “sex”; the 57 varieties of choices on Facebook? And this “etc” has all the ambiguity they need to discriminate against anyone thy want.

      Just stop it.

  2. OT:

    Its not helicopters taking people off the roof of the embassy, but we’re getting there:

    US contractors airlifted out of besieged airbase:…..s-in-iraq/

    Wonder if this will be on the evening news, and if not, why not.

  3. “What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?”

    A tax-deduction to all the people who spent decades living under the stupid system.

  4. What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

    /stares blankly

    You do realize we’re libertarians, right?

    1. i am not a libertarian and i thought the same thing.

      1. Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.

  5. i say we do not anything short of MERIT based entrance to PUBLIC colleges.

    A private college should be free to accept black or white or indian ONLY. A private college should be able to have any admission policy it likes.

    1. But then private colleges would only ever admit affluent white men!


  6. I have a hard time getting upset by the “legacy” preference deal. It seems like it would be a good business decision to give preference to legacy students, since my guess is those students are much more likely to finish all 4+ years at that college.

    1. It is just marketing. If you don’t give legacies a preference, you can’t get alumni to donate. Why donate if it doesn’t even help get my kid in the door?

      1. AND (paraphrasing WF Buckley) – if you expect the alumni to have loyal to the school ($$$), then why not expect the school to be loyal to the alumni?

        If the school disregards alumni-family status when deciding admissions, why can’t alumni be similarly even-handed in making charitable donations? “I won’t single out my alma mater for money, after all it’s just one university out of many, competing for my scarce donation dollars!”

  7. The top ten percent rule also reduced the quality of the student body at the flagship universities in Texas. Being top 10 percent at some inner city school or some tiny rural school is just not the same as being even top 25% at some big suburban school full of bright kids with supportive parents. The top 10% rule ended up being a boon for the non flagship state schools. Top students who normally would have gone to UT or A&M ended up at U of H or UTSA or elsewhere because they were not top ten percent.

    I think the state schools should go to straight objective entrance exams. Give an examm that tests, reading, writing, math, history and a couple of science subjects and let in whoever gets the top score. To me the biggest problem with college admissions is the obsession with extra circular activities and life story. Just because you grew up hard and overcame doesn’t mean you can hack it academically. And just because your parents have the money to support you joining ever club available and building shacks for the poor in South America every summer, doesn’t mean you deserve a slot over someone who is smarter and knows more than you but spent their summer playing video games. Lets start judging students on their knowledge and academic competence. What a revolutionary concept.

    1. I’ve been toying with the idea of starting an online “college”. Anyone could set up a shingle and teach a course.

      Diplomas would be based on exit exams that were reviewed by external parties to ensure that they were sufficiently rigorous.

      My guess is that if done right, it would cost much less than college, and would be far more responsive to the needs of the marketplace.

      1. I think you are right. The other thing is that teaching is not the same as knowing. The best teachers are often not the biggest experts in their fields. There are lots of people who love to teach and are great at it and would do it in their spare time for pocket change. I really think there is a huge untapped resource of great teachers out there who don’t teach because the universities won’t hire them and being a high school teacher doesn’t pay that well and requires submitting to all kinds of bureaucratic bullshit.

  8. What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

    *** waves hand frantically ***

    I know! GENDER-based affirmative action!

    What do I win?

  9. I live on Brenner Drive between Wells Avenue and Route 9W. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

  10. what should replace it? How about nothing; how about sanity wherein the students most qualified to enter are the ones granted admission. The answer to doing away with govt initiatives is seldom to replace them with new govt initiatives.

  11. “The plan guarantees admission to a public college to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state.”

    Am I reading this wrong or does this just discriminate against homeschoolers?

    1. I don’t think you were supposed to notice that.

  12. Thomas Sowell had some sharp words for all this “holistic evaluation of students’ lives, not just their test scores” crap.

    If assessing students based on test scores isn’t an ideal method, at least it sets a known, objective, easily administered standard. “This one got an 820, which is better than the other person who got a 780.”

    But we’re supposed to assume that student admissions professionals can select the best students from the applicant pool by weighing Susie’s summer internship at Sea World against Tyrone’s science-fair project against Bob’s eloquent essay about how humbled he was during his visit to Costa Rica.

    You may as well roll dice.

  13. What Should Replace Race-Based Affirmative Action?

    An objective standardized aptitude test

  14. You must Gnarfle the Garthok

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