Should colleges look at race in determining admissions?

This is an occasional college debate series hosted by Today’s Question where we invite debate clubs to frame and guide the day’s discussion. Positions taken by the debaters don’t necessarily reflect their views. As always, personal attacks aren’t allowed in this space. The comment thread continues to be open to all. Join in!

The Supreme Court agreed to reexamine how the University of Texas at Austin uses race in determining admissions, which could impact affirmative action across college campuses. In Fisher v. University of Texas (UT), the court will rule whether or not considering race as a factor in UT’s admission policy is unconstitutional. The white plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, claims her race was a factor in her rejection from the school in 2008, since nonwhite students with worse grades were accepted.

Defending the argument is Adam Johnson, a freshman entrepreneurial management student at the Carlson School of Management.

Why does America have such a big issue with affirmative action? Each college should be able to set its own policies for admissions, and get the mix of students they desire. This is especially true for private schools, but should apply to colleges across the country. If Texas wants to have more racial diversity on their campus, the benefits granted to the students that get into the school balance out the harm done to students who don’t make it in. If a white student wants to argue the affirmative action system is unfair to them, then why can’t a poor student argue that it is unfair that they didn’t get to attend a private school and get a tutor to raise their tests scores.

Fairness is only half of the argument. It doesn’t matter if the system is fair if the system is not effective. However, affirmative action achieves real results, first in increasing diversity, and then in having that diversity create better outcomes for everyone involved. Studies have consistently found that if you take away affirmative action, you take away as much as two thirds of the black and Hispanic population from a school. This poses a problem because more diversity provides a better college experience. A campus that has a student population from a variety of cultures, backgrounds and experiences provides more parallels to a real life working culture, and gives students more perspective. Affirmative action should absolutely continue to be a part of America’s college system.

Challenging the argument is Matthew Erickson, a freshman at St. Olaf College. He plans to major in English and neuroscience.

Affirmative action, or the requirement that colleges and universities accept certain percentages of different social groups, ought not to be utilized, because it entrenches the stigma it attempts to resolve. When someone is given “a leg up” because you’re a member of a group that’s “handicapped” by discrimination, whether against their gender or ethnicity or something else, they are branded by the administration as victims. While it may be true that it’s harder for them to achieve because of subconscious, automatic profiling systems we all use (or the very conscious, despicable actions of bigotry), it’s also true that this new profile still starts from a very simple assumption about their past experience and current capacities that’s patronizing.

Instead, let’s consider the more democratic alternative, a Tabula Rosa (blank slate) approach. If a person’s capacity for rationalization and recall, their values, and the level of engagement they have in their local communities are the primary criterion for higher education, we create a college community far more protected from the problems of discriminatory profiling. Whether their access to resources compared with those in the more hegemonic group is less, and whether they’re held against unbecoming stereotypes, ceases to be relevant within a protected, ‘blank slate’ administration, while it simply changes form in an administration run by affirmative action.

Today’s Question: Should colleges look at race in determining admissions?