Toward Real Equality in Higher Education

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 01, 2012

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville said that "there is hardly a political question in America which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one." That observation seems especially apt as we await oral arguments, scheduled for October 10, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the most recent affirmative-action challenge to reach the United States Supreme Court.

The policies under review in Fisher are complex, and many commentators have been reluctant to speculate about what the case might mean for affirmative action in general. But whatever happens in this case, we must recognize that controversies about race-conscious admissions have unhelpfully narrowed the debate about equality of educational opportunity and diverted attention from the extraordinary inequalities that continue to exist.

The scope of the judicial question about affirmative action is undeniably narrow. Most Americans who attend college matriculate at institutions that accept a majority of their applicants and then struggle to find resources to provide them with a quality education. Those students often take on sizable debt to attend, and far too many never complete a degree, whether because elementary and secondary schools have left them academically underprepared or because their families have no tradition of higher education or because they cannot balance the demands of school and employment. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander observes in The New Jim Crow, too many minority young men "matriculate" into the prison system, often in states that devote proportionately greater resources to prisons than to higher education.

Those realities suggest that the percentage of minorities at selective institutions has little to do with the educational opportunities available to Americans (minority and nonminority) who struggle to attend underfinanced universities, or who have no hope of attending college at all. Shortly before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the second phase of the civil-rights movement ought to be a general campaign against economic inequality. Today, proponents of equality must embrace that suggestion by encouraging institutional change and social innovation that more effectively respond to inequalities in access to postsecondary education.

It has sometimes been argued that affirmative action would have a trickle-down effect, whereby minority students would choose careers and life plans designed to expand opportunity in their communities. But, not surprisingly, minority students have turned out to be like students in general: By and large, college students do not feel obligated to define their personal goals in the context of broader social goods. Nor should they, since a college experience can be a catalyst for extraordinary self-development and personal change.

The trickle-down argument is symptomatic of a larger defect in the pursuit of "diversity" in the academy. Although that pursuit is unquestionably valuable, it can lead institutions to view minority students as mere means to an end: essential embodiments of "diverse perspectives" whose greatest value to the institution lies in their capacity to help fulfill institutional goals. Students who are viewed in this light are too easily construed as less than full-fledged members of their academic communities.

My experience as an African-American alumna of a selective college, strengthened by my work as a professor and administrator, suggests that minority students who succeed at selective institutions learn to reject this instrumental view of their place in those institutions. They best manage this when they develop a healthy skepticism about familiar criticisms that affirmative action undermines a system that is otherwise based wholly on merit. But for affirmative action, they may be told, selective institutions would reward only those applicants with the right combination of talent, hard work, and ambition—who really "deserve" a place in those institutions. Successful minority students understand that this claim is unsupportable.

Their skepticism is echoed in the efforts of college admissions officers who now ask whether instruments like the SAT and the ACT might measure an "aptitude" that is too dependent on socioeconomic status. Meanwhile, outside of academe the rising cost of attending selective institutions continues to generate concern about the notion that those institutions are the best gatekeepers of access to prestigious positions and careers.

A constructive resolution of such controversies will not be achieved by resolving only the judicial question about affirmative-action cases. Moreover, it has been clear at least since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger that at some point in the not-so-distant future the political will to support race-conscious admissions will disappear. In the Grutter case, the court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School could use race as a "plus factor" in admissions decisions, but suggested that such practices wouldn't be necessary in 25 years. The uncertainty, then, is not about whether, but when, affirmative action will come to an end.

What alternative strategies might promote real equality of educational opportunity?

First, we must continue to defend the value of public investment in elementary and secondary education, so that academic preparation for college is not so tightly linked to socioeconomic status. Selective colleges and universities could be more effective advocates for this goal, and at the same time help ensure the longer-term diversity of their institutions by developing more programs that allow their undergraduates to become certified teachers.

The teaching corps created by Teach for America fills an important need, and we rightly support undergraduates who want to devote two years of their lives to that effort. But greater investment in preparing undergraduates for careers in teaching in kindergarten through high school would signal a powerful commitment to public education, especially at selective institutions where the high cost of attendance might require loan-forgiveness programs for undergraduates to consider teaching financially feasible.

Second, we must continue to show how public support for higher education, particularly through student grants and student-loan programs, promotes equality of opportunity at selective and nonselective institutions alike. But as we argue for continuing public investment, we must answer sincere concerns about our accountability: We must work toward more reasonable increases in tuition and fees, and we must show that we are thoughtful stewards of scarce resources who critically assess the value of what we teach.

Third, we must support innovative teachers and researchers who are developing new ways of delivering higher education to less-well-off students. One way to do this is through expanded online education, relying on advances in technology made possible, in part, by extensive public investment in university research. To be sure, online programs cannot replicate the kind of learning that depends upon face-to-face interaction between students and teachers, but selective institutions can support the development of hybrid models that combine conventional educational methods with the best that technology can provide.

Finally, whether or not affirmative action survives the challenge in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, educators must be part of a broader effort to pursue equality of educational opportunity by emphasizing shared national goals. We face the likelihood of a severe work-force gap that will leave the nation struggling to find people who are qualified to perform essential social functions, and we cannot afford to discount the potential of any American who might fill that gap. It is time to stress the benefits that can flow to all citizens, regardless of race and ethnicity, when our society promotes equality of educational opportunity in the broadest sense.

Michele Moody-Adams is a professor of political philosophy and legal theory at Columbia University, and a former dean of Columbia College there.