Thursday, July 05, 2007


In his brilliant but chilling book, And We Are Not Saved, Derrick Bell writes a chapter entitled "The Unspoken Limit on Affirmative Action: The Chronicle of the DeVine Gift." Like all of Bell's chronicles, it is a hypothetical story, this one relating to the "small pool" argument for why there is not more minority representation at elite colleges and universities. A law school, thanks to the help of a well-connected businessman (DeVine Taylor), is able to find a virtually limitless supply of impeccably qualified minority scholars to hire onto its faculty. At first, it used the DeVine Gift to hire a flurry of new professors of color. But after the sixth minority scholar was hired and the faculty was approaching a quarter "of color", the hiring committee became uneasy. The school decided against hiring its seventh minority faculty member, despite his stellar credentials, as the heavy minority tint was starting to affect the image of the school. The dean explained to its first Black faculty member, who had spearheaded the DeVine Gift project, that "a law school of our caliber and tradition simply cannot look like a professional basketball team."

The story is a hypothetical, of course, and a cynical one at that. Bell uses it to illustrate the outward limit of affirmative action and speciousness of the "small pool" argument--even if the pool got larger, Bell suspects, the gatekeepers at colleges and universities would not willingly turn former bastions of White privilege into truly multi-cultural institutions

I always thought the story was a little overblown. The experience of California universities, which hang around a plurality of Asian-American students, would seem to cut against it (but see here for why Asians may be a special case). My intuition was that colleges would gleefully admit truly outstanding minority applicants--it's a cost-free way to increase diversity, proclaim commitment to meritocracy, and not resort to controversial affirmative action programs at the same time. Where minorities would lose out, I thought, was in cases where they were middle of the admissions pack and would consistently lose out due to a variety of "intangible" factors.

But then I read Charles Lawrence III's account of UC-Berkeley's admissions behavior after it was forbidden, by referendum, from using affirmative action. Specifically, this information:
Berkeley is the UC system's most selective school, and of the 25,796 applicants for the 1999 freshman class, 9,858 had GPAs of 4.0. n56 But a white applicant with a straight "A" average has a much better shot at getting into Berkeley than a black, Latino or Filipino applicant with the same grades. [Charles R. Lawrence, Two Views of the River: A Critique of the Liberal Defense of Affirmative Action, 101 Colum. L. Rev. 928, 942-43 (2001)]

Lawrence draws this conclusion by simply looking at the rejection data. "Comparing applicants to the freshman class admitted for the fall of 1998 with GPAs of 4.0 or higher, African-American, Latino, and Filipino-American students were denied admission at far higher rates than white students. Berkeley admitted 48.2% of white applicants with GPAs of 4.0 or higher, but only 31.6% of Filipino-American, 38.5% of African-American, and 39.7% of Latino applicants with such GPAs."

The problem, of course, is that with AP classes and other such programs, it is possible to boost one's GPA far higher than 4.0--possibly up to a 5.0. Yet, since not all schools offer AP classes (and some offer far more than others), many students are at an intrinsic disadvantage simply from where the graduate. Should a student with a 4.0 average at a school with no APs (in other words, the very best score he could receive) be looked upon unfavorably compared to a student with a 4.2 average at a school with 20? I am an example of the latter student and even I don't think that, on that information alone at least, I am the superior candidate.

This is shocking data. It appears to verify Bell's chronicle. Impeccably qualified minority students, students who did everything right, are still being denied admission to elite colleges at a higher rate than their White peers. What more do we ask of these kids? What more do they need to do? Is the problem on their end, or on ours?


PG said...

Fascinating, but I'd caution against assuming that all of the underrepresented minority applicants came from worse schools. I definitely think that an admissions calculus that simply looks at GPAs and classes taken, without a context of the opportunities the applicant had, is a very stupid one. But many schools do look at it -- if I remember correctly, one of my law school applications wanted to know what percentage of my *high school* had been school-lunched/ minority, I suppose to work out whether I'd had some sort of underprivileged background. (My mediocre public schooling probably was the least privileged aspect of my upbringing, but it would be ludicrous to look at how poor my classmates were rather than how wealthy my parents were.)

Anonymous said...

Also, for many colleges (read: almost all), there is not anything higher than a 4.0 for admissions purposes, and they do not keep that data, precisely because weighted GPAs are so overblown, unequal, and unstandardized. Generally, the point of weighting advanced placement courses is to cancel out the disincentive that class ranks provide to enroll. The purpose is primarily internal, though obviously your class rank, owing to your weighted GPA, will be looked at.

But your kidding yourself if you thought Carleton was in any way impressed by your "4.2". They just said "Oh, that's cute" and ticked of the "mostly A student" box.