Last Thursday, in a ballroom energetically charged with dozens of young college students just ending a week of midterms, expert panelists deliberated the merits of affirmative action. Although the Pomona Student Union organized event was supposed to address issue of class-based affirmative action, the invited speakers either addressed race-based affirmative action or affirmative action as a whole. At the head of the room were three experts: George Leef, the Director of Research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Dr, James Sterba, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, and Matthew Yglesias, a blogger for the Center for American Progress.
The speakers offered insightful and oftentimes contentious opinions on these topics. Dr. Sterba was the sole speaker who expressed support for affirmative action. Mr.Yglesias and Mr. Leef appeared more inclined to address the root causes of disparity in educational opportunities. For these last two speakers, the problem of why minorities continued to be disenfranchised lies elsewhere, and therefore affirmative action’s promise exceeds its real benefits. This last idea, I believe, was the most interesting part of the evening’s event.
In a brilliantly construed and eloquently delivered metaphor involving the best way of forming an Olympic basketball team, Yglesias pointed out that governments are using constituents’ tax dollars to help the wrong people. He explained that people who are applying for college or even considering college, are not those who are need of government attention. Aid needs to be refocused to help the people who cannot apply or who do not even know that they can apply for college admission. For Yglesias, in putting together the best possible basketball team, you need to worry about how to improve the performance of the short, slow guy – not the tall, athletic one.
Dr. Sterba argued that entrance into top-universities was overrated. He said that most elite colleges offer the same education as regular colleges and the only difference is that the former admits more competent, competitive, and ambitious students. In his view, graduates of top educational facilities are more successful because of their experiences before college. Clearly, if this is the case, affirmative action cannot deliver on what it sets out to accomplish because the problem is rooted in K-12 education. Furthermore, he explained that affirmative action does not allow for a good fit between student and educational institution; those who cannot get into an elite college probably cannot handle the workload anyhow.
The common thread of the discussion arguably was the need to focus on improving K-12 education. In addition, there was assent by all three speakers that government should encourage if not force top colleges and universities to eschew legacy admission and sport scholarships.
Overall, class-based affirmative action, although noble in theory, simply was not discussed as a viable option for improving upward-mobility in minority groups. The value of affirmative action as a whole was also contested. Evidently the benefit of government involvement in addressing the issue of upward mobility in relation to higher education remains up for debate.