Three decades of affirmative action laws and court rulings designed to give more minority students the chance to earn a college degree got mixed reviews from a panel of experts.
“The whole point of affirmative action is to redistribute jobs and slots in school,” Dr. Harold Holzer, a law professor at Georgetown University, said. This redistribution results in a one to two percent increase in minority students in colleges and universities, said Holzer. Holzer, in turn, took part of the pro side in a debate on affirmative action at the Cato Institute in Washington, D. C.
For her part, Tanya Clay of People for the American Way argues that even this gain would be nonexistent without affirmative action. “The absence of affirmative action reduces minority graduation rates,” Clay said.
Economist Walter Williams, who moderated the discussion, posed two questions at the outset. He asked how affirmative action in theory compares to affirmative action in fact and whether we can reasonably expect affirmative action to offset what he characterizes as the fraudulent education that inner city kids receive.
Williams points out that the education he views as fraudulent “doesn’t help white kids either.” He went on to point out that beneficiaries of college affirmative action programs still can’t score competitively on graduate exams, specifically the LSATs (for law school) and the GREs (for graduate school). Clay argued, curiously, “The LSATs only show how you can get through the first year of college.”
“Freshmen must be ‘college ready’ at virtually all four-year colleges,” said Marie Gryphon, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute who also spoke at the event. “This means that students must be literate, must have a high school diploma, and must have taken minimum coursework.”
“Overwhelmingly, minority students are not college ready.” Gryphon points to a study from the Manhattan Institute that found that less than a quarter of Black and Hispanic students are ready for college.
Affirmative action does help qualified minority students get into more expensive, and thus, more widely known, schools, Holzer claimed. Gryphon asserts that studies conclude that the name of the school that you graduate from does not make a difference in the jobs that you get hired for after graduation. The educational reforms that will most benefit disadvantaged students should be made in primary schools, Gryphon and Williams argue.
Vouchers that will allow inner city students to exit failing private schools for more academically successful private ones are one reform favored by libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute. Clay does not see vouchers as a solution to the problems faced by public school students.
In her personal blog, Washington, D. C. writer LaShawn Barber, who attended, remembers how Clay fielded this one:
“Vouchers take money away from government schools, she [Clay] claimed. Not true in D.C. She added that since black children were stuck in government schools and may not be able to gain admission to private schools, we should not encourage the use of vouchers.
“My mouth dropped open, and before I could fully react, Williams interjected. He asked: (paraphrase) So if there is a way to help some black children, we shouldn’t do so because all black children won’t be helped?
“Clay tried to recover and said that yes, we should help some if we can but all need to be helped, or something like that.”