Affirmative Action Faces a New Wave of Anger
By JACQUES STEINBERG
New York Times
In 1995, when Jennifer Gratz applied to the University of Michigan's flagship Ann Arbor campus, she wanted to become a doctor. When she was rejected, she said she abandoned that ambition.
"I thought that if the University of Michigan didn't think I was good enough, I wasn't," Ms. Gratz, now 25 and working at a computer company in San Diego, said in an interview last year. "I think my life would be significantly different if I had been admitted."
Ms. Gratz's sense that her life would have been different, and better, underlies much of the opposition to the affirmative action at many colleges and universities. And that opposition, in the form of white applicants like Ms. Gratz who argue that their rightful places at the top schools are being given to black and Hispanic students of lesser ability, has been gaining momentum once again.
Their anxiety — that not getting into an elite academic institution will lead to a less prosperous and happy life — is at the heart of the constitutional challenge to the admissions policies of the University of Michigan that the Supreme Court recently decided to hear.
"I sense that the anger is rising," said James O. Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth and author of "Liberal Education and the Public Interest" (University of Iowa Press, 2003). "I sense that people whose children go today to a school that's not one of the Top 25 in the U.S. News poll feel defensive, that they have to explain it to friends. It's like a failure."
A measure of this edginess is the rise in early applications to Harvard and Yale, programs that drew relatively few applicants three decades ago. This fall, 2,611 applicants sought early admission to Yale; 7,620 applied for early admission to Harvard. Each represented an increase of nearly 25 percent over last year.
A large number of the students who apply early are middle- and upper-middle-class whites. They apply, at least in part, because their college counselors have told them that the odds of being admitted early are often greater than in the main round — when, not coincidentally, they will be pitted more directly against black and Hispanic applicants whose race is considered a plus by such colleges.
On the one hand, this frenzy to secure the imprimatur of an Ivy League institution is irrational, at least economically. In 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the federal Department of Education, examined the earnings of a group of college graduates five years after their graduation and concluded that the selectivity of their alma maters had had a minimal impact. A more important predictor of income was the person's undergraduate major.
Yet, Dr. Freedman acknowledges, these things still count. "I think for the first job, these credentials really do matter," he said. "Going to Dartmouth gets you an entree at Goldman Sachs. How you do at Goldman Sachs is up to you."
Moreover, an earnings survey can capture neither the quality of instruction at an elite college, nor the incalculable boost in status of students (and families) associated with the nation's elite schools. In a nation of few formal class distinctions, the college sticker on one's car may be the most potent.
Such issues are at the heart of the two cases seeking to undo the admissions policies of the undergraduate and law school programs at Michigan.
MS. GRATZ, a B student in high school, is one of the two white plaintiffs challenging the undergraduate policy at Michigan, where black and Hispanic applicants are given a 20-point bonus on a 150-point evaluation scale.
Like other selective universities, Michigan aids minority applicants for two main reasons: to level the playing field and to enrich the educational experiences of whites and nonwhites alike. But had Ann Arbor not given a statistical boost to applicants whose test scores and grades may have been lower than hers, Ms. Gratz contends, she would have had a better chance of getting in.
"They clearly discriminate based on the color of your skin," she said.
To Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, a fierce race and class struggle is being waged in the arena of highly selective college admissions. "Call it Whites' Rights," said Professor Hacker, whose 1992 book "Two Nations" will be reissued by Simon & Schuster this year.
To Professor Hacker, those whites who are most up in arms are those who indeed may be at the biggest disadvantage — those in the lower and middle classes. Upper-class whites, he said, can still afford to attend the top high schools, whether private ones or public schools in the wealthiest suburbs, that place a disproportionate number of their graduates at marquee colleges.
But whites of lesser means, particularly in the Northeast, face competition as never before, not only from blacks and Hispanics but also from Asian-Americans who may have higher test scores. Northeasterners also face competition from applicants from states like Utah and Missouri, who are in relatively high demand because they offer "geographic diversity."
At highly selective private and public colleges, admissions officers acknowledge that they generally demand white applicants with well-educated parents to have the highest SAT scores, often at least a 1400 score on a 1600 scale.
A black applicant with similar grades, particularly one whose parents did not go to college, might get in with an 1150 score. The colleges' reasoning is that children of better-educated parents are exposed to the vocabulary and advanced problem-solving skills that yield higher SAT scores.
Fearing that they will be held to a higher standard, those well-to-do whites (and Asian-Americans, who are not considered minorities at many institutions) may spend thousands of dollars on tutors to help their children raise their SAT scores or to enlist the services of for-hire guidance counselors, who help students hone their applications, and then lobby colleges on their behalf. One such service in Manhattan, known as Ivy Wise, charges $29,000 for its top junior-senior package. (The company also counsels several minority applicants without charge.)
FOR those families that came to see a Harvard education as a birthright passed from one generation to the next, the idea that a so-called legacy applicant may be rejected in favor of an affirmative-action one can be a source of outrage. So, too, for a white applicant with near-perfect scores and grades who is passed over in favor of a minority applicant at the same high school with lower scores and grades.
Asked how, as president of Dartmouth, he soothed such anger, especially when addressing a parent, Dr. Freedman said he would typically respond: "Those kids seemed somehow to us to add qualities to the class that your son or daughter did not, which only may mean that your son or daughter was like 75 percent of the class that we've already admitted."
It's an answer that is unlikely to mollify the excluded.