NAPALC: Background Information on Affirmative Action and U-Michigan

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The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear two cases within the next few months that represent one of the most important civil rights issue of the 21st Century: whether American universities will continue to prepare all students for life in an increasingly diverse society and global marketplace. For students of color, these cases are as significant as Brown v. Board of Education, because they will determine whether colleges and universities have an affirmative duty to provide equal access to higher education.

The two lawsuits challenge the use of race and ethnicity conscious affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s Law School (Grutter v. Bollinger) and the undergraduate college (Gratz v. Bollinger). In both suits, the plaintiffs are white women who claim that their rejections for admission are the result of discrimination against them for being white. The University of Michigan has vigorously defended its affirmative action programs as a lawful and crucial component of its mission to provide educational opportunity to a diverse student population. The lower court rulings sided with the university, finding the current programs to be constitutional.

Like most colleges and universities, the University of Michigan recognizes the value of racial and ethnic diversity in its student body. The University stands firm in its mission to provide a diverse learning environment with benefits that extend beyond the realm of the classroom. The University also believes that diversity is crucial for preparing all young people to be intelligent, thoughtful and active participants in American society.

Since the filing of these two lawsuits in 1997, University of Michigan has received overwhelming support from its students, faculty, administration, alumni and a diverse group of prominent individuals, scholars, Fortune 500 companies, and civil rights and education organizations. This broad base of support has enabled the University to compile an in-depth evidentiary record of expert testimony to bolster its case on the educational benefits of diversity and it demonstrates the wide-ranging effect this issue has on American society beyond the classroom.

In January, President Bush ordered the Department of Justice to file a brief in the Supreme Court on the side of the white plaintiffs, causing the Department of Justice to switch its long-held position in support of such programs.

Myths and Realities

Myth: The University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs are racial “quota systems.”
President Bush grossly mischaracterizes the University of Michigan program as a quota system. A quota system is the admission of a fixed number of candidates from a given group without regard to the actual abilities of the individual candidates. Quotas have been illegal since the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke case.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law school admissions program was consistent with Bakke. The University of Michigan affirmative action program does not involve quotas. Rather, the program is a point system that considers a myriad of factors of which race is only one. The school’s goal is to “choose among a pool of well-qualified applicants to enroll a student body that is diverse in a rich variety of ways.”

Myth: At the University of Michigan race is a factor that dominates over academic achievement.
President Bush argues that the fact that only a maximum of 12 points can be awarded for a student’s score on the SAT, while being an underrepresented minority accrues 20 points, is evidence that race outweighs academic achievement in admissions.

This is a misleading charge. The University of Michigan gives 110 of 150 possible total points for academic factors including grades, test scores and curriculum. On this scale, up to 80 points are given for grades and up to 12 points for SAT scores. Another 10 points are awarded based on the quality of the high school and up to eight points for taking a demanding course of study.

Myth: SAT’s should be determinative in admissions.
Studies show that except for students who score very high or very low, the SAT’s and other such tests are inaccurate predictors of who will ultimately do well in college or graduate school. Additionally, standardized tests have a well documented cultural and gender bias. For example, while girls consistently score below boys on standardized tests, they receive higher grades in both high school and college. Standardized test scores are closely tied to family income, with higher income students averaging much higher scores than lower income students.

The University of Michigan values grades and other factors more highly than test scores in assessing an applicant since test scores do not cover qualities such as competitiveness, decisiveness, creativity, or imagination.

Myth: “Students are being selected or rejected based primarily on the color of their skin” at the University of Michigan.
President Bush makes this completely erroneous claim. The truth is that more than 450 admitted white applicants had either grades or test scores lower than Grutter’s in the year she applied. In the University of Michigan’s point system, 150 points is the maximum number of points an applicant can receive, 40 of which can be given for a number of factors not related to academic performance. It recognizes that students are composed of many different attributes that also contribute to the learning environment of the university. Of the maximum 40 points allotted to “other factors” (i.e., not academic factors), 20 points can be allotted to an underrepresented minority, to a socio- economically disadvantaged student, to a scholarship athlete or to a student with an underrepresented racial-ethnic minority identification or education. 20 points can also be awarded at the provost’s discretion. Other factors that are given points include geography, legacy/alumni relationships, personal achievement, essay, leadership and service.

Under this system, white students are offered the opportunity to receive the same extra 20 points as the minority students. For example, if they come from an economically strapped family or if they attend a predominantly minority high school then the white applicant would also receive 20 points added to their score. Additionally, it should be pointed out that a student cannot receive 20 points for being a particular race AND another 20 for being socio-economically disadvantaged. This point system is designed to bring diversity to the student body of all different types of students, not just racially different students.

White students also can tend to disproportionately benefit from other categories. For example, the University of Michigan has stated that geographic diversity is an important goal for the school and that, for example, a student from Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula could earn another 16 points for their geographical location. Considering that the Upper Peninsula region happens to be overwhelmingly white, numerous white students are given 16 points because of where they live.

In addition, white students also are more likely to be able to attend high quality schools with advanced placement classes or other such courses not available in all too many minority neighborhoods and get up to 18 points. They are also more likely to get points for being related to an alumnus.

The University of Michigan’s point system is carefully structured to ensure that race is only one of many factors utilized in an effort to create a diverse learning environment for the benefit of all their students and balance an unlevel playing field.

Myth: The undergraduate admissions program’s point system grants African-American, Hispanic and Native American applicants points on the basis of race, “not because of any academic achievement or life experience.”
President Bush makes the startling assumption that being a member of a minority race is irrelevant to life experience. This is simply not true. The University of Michigan recognizes that the simple fact of being a racial minority in America today leads a person to have certain life experiences that would not be experienced by those in the racial majority. This understanding is also evidenced by the 20 points awarded to students with an underrepresented racial-ethnic minority identification or education – thus a white student in a predominantly African American high school would receive 20 points for their life experience as a minority in their school.

Myth: Asian Americans do not benefit from the University of Michigan program.
Although Asian Americans are not currently included in the University of Michigan’s admissions point system, the University of Michigan Law School does “consider the extent to which applicants of groups not specifically mentioned in the Policy, such as Asian Americans, would contribute to diversity when reviewing their applications. If the Law School discovered that it could not enroll meaningful numbers of these groups without special attention to their race or ethnicity, the Policy would permit special attention to their presence.”

Moreover, Asian Americans who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are eligible to receive 20 points to their total score.

In addition, Asian Americans, as well as all students, at the University benefit from the diversity achieved by the affirmative action programs. Diversity in the higher education settings helps to prepare students for living and working in the “real world.” Not only are students exposed to different cultures and viewpoints, they are also exposed to interacting with others from different cultures and viewpoints.

Myth: Asian Americans do not support affirmative action.
Asian Americans do support affirmative action. The 2001 Pilot Study of the National Asian American Political Survey found that Asian Americans were overwhelmingly supportive of affirmative action. Of respondents who held an opinion on affirmative action, 72 percent believe it is a “good thing” while only 7 percent believe it is a “bad thing.” Comparing across ethnic groups, a majority of all groups surveyed (Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, and Vietnamese) supported affirmative action.

A 1996 survey by Asian Week magazine revealed that 57% of the respondents supported affirmative action, with 55% favoring consideration of race in college admissions.

Also, during the 1996 general elections the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California conducted a non-partisan exit poll of Asian American voters in Los Angeles and Orange County. Although APAs were often portrayed in the media as opposed to affirmative action, the exit polls showed resounding support for affirmative action programs. The exit poll responses revealed that 76.2% of all respondents voted against the Proposition 209 initiative, which intended to eliminate affirmative action programs in California. Furthermore, the support was distinctly bipartisan with 78.5% of Democratic respondents and 72.8% of Republican respondents supporting affirmative action programs.

Myth: “Affirmative access” plans like the Texas 10% plan would be a better alternative to Michigan’s affirmative action plan.
So-called “affirmative access” plans are not a better alternative to affirmative action.

“Affirmative access” plans, such as the ten percent plan in Texas – which guarantees admission to the top 10% of students at state high schools – do not ensure diversity in higher education institutions. Their success depends on significant racial segregation of a state’s high schools, which is not the case in a majority of the states. They aren’t effective, particularly for flagship institutions, as shown by falling numbers in the admittance of Latino and African American students to the flagship schools in the University of Texas system. Furthermore, because such plans, by definition, can apply only to high school graduates going to college, it cannot work for applicants applying to graduate, law or medical schools. In fact, at the University of Texas Law School, African American enrollment dropped 58% in the five years following the elimination of affirmative action. Finally, percent plans will not work for private universities seeking a nationally representative class.

NAPALC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to advance the legal and civil rights of Asian Pacific Americans through litigation, public education and public policy.

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