Should top American colleges start giving group preferences based on place rather than race?

For decades, admissions policy at nearly all our top colleges and universities has been to meet enrollment targets for students who fit into a few racial and ethnic groups. In the University of Michigan cases decided in 2003, for example, the three preferred groups were blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

The university defended its approach as necessary to ensure a “critical mass” of those students; without that magic number, supposedly, the educational benefits of having a “diverse” student body would not materialize.

It is a sign of progress in the national debate over affirmative action that some of the people who once favored preferences based on race are rethinking their position—specifically questioning whether choosing students from those few groups necessarily does anything to increase diversity on campus.

One doubter is Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin. In her recent book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, she argues that the current emphasis on race in admissions merely gives colleges “optical diversity.” Most of the students come from fairly affluent minority families and while they look different, in fact they’re hardly different from other middle-class young Americans.

Cashin is also bothered that race-based affirmative action benefits black students from immigrant families, writing, “One of the perverse aspects of the optical diversity currently being pursued at very selective colleges and universities is that it redounds to the benefit of children of African immigrants, who, on average, are the best educated of all immigrant groups.” So, while those students might actually bring some cultural differences to a campus, Cashin would stop preferring them because they are already pretty well educated and presumably headed for success.

I’m glad to see a civil rights advocate like Professor Cashin arguing that mere “optical diversity” doesn’t generate the great benefits for society that affirmative action proponents claim. It is a step in the right direction to acknowledge that just having filled a quota (or some euphemism for that) of students who happen to have certain ancestries doesn’t automatically make a college better.

Unfortunately, Cashin wants to replace one kind of admissions preference with another. She wants preferences based on “place,” by which she means lower socio-economic status, so it “will help those actually disadvantaged by segregation.” The word “segregation” seems shocking, but that is how she sees America. Poorer people of all races and ethnicities are supposedly blocked from advancing by a system that “hoards” opportunities for the already successful.

The way to break that system, she argues, is for top colleges and universities to give preferences to “strivers” from lower-income families, no matter their race.

In short, Cashin sees the redistribution of college acceptances at prestige schools as the means of bringing about a fairer nation; as her subtitle says, a new vision of opportunity in America.

I’m not persuaded. The book is based on two erroneous assumptions.

The first assumption is that America is so rigidly stratified that children from poorer families, even those with good academic skills and work habits, are overwhelmingly stuck in place with scant hope of any upward mobility.

But being born into a relatively poor family or in a fairly remote locale is no barrier to success. How well people do in this country has little to do with their origins and everything to do with how good they are at producing what others value. No one is prevented from developing talents and profiting from them.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Tamar Jacoby made that point. She wrote about young men from humble homes who, despite their lack of interest in formal education, are doing well because they have learned valuable skills in construction, welding, and the like. Although “strivers” (and others) are impeded by various government policies (I’m thinking here of occupational licensing, minimum wage laws, and the like), they can succeed anyway. They aren’t “segregated.”

Cashin’s second assumption is that going to a prestigious college or university is vital for strivers, but they’re “locked out” because they can’t afford the expense of SAT-prep, tutors, and similar services. She writes that the “gateway” to the knowledge economy and its high-paying jobs is “selective higher education.” Therefore, if you want good kids from poor places to have a chance, you must want admissions officers at top schools to give them a boost.

That view greatly overrates prestigious schools as springboards for good careers, while at the same time ignoring the benefits that strivers can get at non-prestigious institutions, or even bypassing college. I am not arguing that “strivers” should be ignored by schools like Harvard, or that an elite school can’t be a good fit where the student who is accepted because of “place” will gain greatly in skills and knowledge.

I’m arguing that those schools are not necessarily the best or even good choices for the kind of students Cashin thinks need help.

Prestige schools can be far from ideal learning environments. The faculty is often too immersed in research to work much with undergrads. The curriculum is often a giant smorgasbord of courses, some useful, many doubtful, and little guidance to help students make good selections. And at some, the campus climate is too rich in the distractions of sports and partying, as the book Paying for the Party makes clear.

Cashin ignores the possibility that a “striver” may be mismatched at a prestigious school. Just because a student appears to have done well in high school and is a hard worker does not mean he’ll be able to handle the work at every college.

Kashawn Campbell is a good example of such a student. He was the best student in his Los Angeles high school and was admitted to UC-Berkeley. But Kashawn’s ability to read and write was far below most of the students there; he barely avoided flunking out. A Cal State school or a community college would have been a far better fit for Kashawn’s educational needs. (I wrote about this sad case here.)

If college admission officials start searching diligently for students who look like they’re “strivers,” we will get more academic mismatches. We already get many mismatches by using race as the touchstone for preference and we will still get them if we switch to “place.”

Furthermore, some families will “game the system” by keeping children in lower-performing public schools where they will shine, rather than enrolling them in more rigorous charter or private school where they’d learn more but probably won’t stand out. Cashin acknowledges that this is already happening under the Texas Ten Percent Plan, then writes, “I view this as salutary. It means that neighborhood schools are becoming viable to more children, that college knowledge is being spread around because the most motivated students are not isolated in enclaves of advantage.”

Think about that. If motivated students (no matter what their family background) attend academically weaker “neighborhood schools,” does that actually “spread college knowledge” or does it mean that good students will obtain less of the knowledge that will benefit them when they get into college? It’s the latter.

Finally, the book is badly flawed and off-putting because Cashin can’t resist repeated jabs at white conservatives, whom she believes have opposed past affirmative action because they fear that they’re “losing control.” That’s an idea that plays to the sentiments of white liberals, but is essentially a calumny.

Consider, for example this sentence: “Perhaps Abigail Fisher and Abigail Thernstrom might feel differently about affirmative action if there were transparent evidence that whites were also benefiting from a relaxation of numerical notions of merit.” That’s just a snide impugning of the motives of two people Cashin doesn’t know. Bad form.

If she had spoken with some critics of affirmative action (and they’re not all white), she would have found that they’re motivated not by some neo-segregationist urge to stay on top, but instead by the palpable unfairness of admitting some students and rejecting others merely because of their ancestry.

Summing up, admissions preferences based on race and of the kind Cashin wants based on the presumed socio-economic disadvantages of “place” suffer from the same defect. They’re both efforts at social engineering that focus on irrelevant individual characteristics. America will be much better off when we abandon the idea that “elite” colleges are so special that which students they admit is a matter of importance.