If the Supreme Court strikes down or severely limits affirmative action in college admissions when it rules in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, don’t expect its decision to radically transform the landscape of U.S. college admissions. The reason? The court’s ruling will surely be influential, but as a practical matter, affirmative action is mostly irrelevant to admissions policies at the great majority of colleges or for the great majority of students. Most postsecondary institutions take almost all comers, so on those campuses racial and ethnic differences in applicants’ grades and test scores rarely come into play.
This observation isn’t new, but it’s often overlooked. Perhaps that’s because access to elite colleges and universities has taken on such an outsized (though understandable) role in how we think about our national creed of meritocracy and upward mobility.
In The Shape of the River, their influential (and controversial) 1998 defense of affirmative action, former Princeton president William Bowen and former Harvard president Derek Bok explicitly focus on a small set of academically selective institutions that disproportionately educate the nation’s leaders. After all, they say, there’s not much to debate in institutions where almost all qualified applicants get in. “It is when there are strict limits on the number of places in an entering class and far more qualified applicants than places, that the choices become difficult and the issue of whether to give weight to race comes to the forefront.”
By Bowen and Bok’s estimate, just 20 or 30 percent of four-year colleges and universities are selective. “Many people are unaware of how few colleges and universities have enough applicants to be able to pick and choose among them,” they write. (This selectivity figure would be even lower, of course, if the two-year institutions attended by about one-third of all college students were included.)
There’s no reason to think much has changed since then. A 2010 paper by Georgetown University Public Policy Professor Peter Hinrichs looked at how affirmative action bans in states such as California and Michigan affected college enrollment. He concluded that eliminating affirmative action does indeed lower enrollment of blacks and Hispanics at selective colleges, but that such bans “have no effect on the typical student and the typical college.”
Make no mistake: The Supreme Court’s decision will be immensely important for the country. Elite universities, for better or for worse, play a disproportionate role in molding the nation’s leaders (including, of course, current and past Harvard, Yale, and Columbia-trained Supreme Court justices). Who gets in, and how, has consequences. But whether selective college admissions move toward more focus on class, greater transparency, continued use of race, or some combination of the three, it’s worth remembering that the typical college and student won’t be affected one way or the other.
Photo Credit: Salon/AP