As I explained in my last column, the Supreme Court has held that state universities can set aside both the ban on racial discrimination in the 14th amendment and a colorblind interpretation of the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that “diversity” in college enrollment is a “compelling state interest”, comparable to victory in World War II (building on the infamous Korematsu Japanese-internment case as precedent). However, this argument begs a crucial question: does any state university have a “compelling interest” in practicing selective admissions in the first place? If selectivity in admissions is not a compelling interest, then, a fortiori, racially discriminatory admission cannot be, either.
There are 38 state university campuses in Texas, and only four of them (UT-Austin, UT-Dallas, Texas A&M – College Station, and Texas Tech – Lubbock) are selective in their admissions. Those four universities have been supported by generations of Texan taxpayers – three of them were literally built with funds from a state land grant. All Texans have an equal right to benefit from these subsidies – it is fundamentally unjust to restrict this benefit to a small, cognitively gifted minority, a minority destined to enjoy exceptional prosperity, wherever they go to college.
Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (Crown Forum 2012) documents the deep divisions that have opened up between the affluent, prestigiously educated upper class and the rest of society, along with the steep social costs of this division. For example, in 1960 in Austin, the most affluent neighborhoods had median incomes of only $60K (in 2010 dollars), about the salary of an experienced school teacher, and only about one-third had college degrees. By 2010, the medium income of the high-income Austin neighborhoods had soared to $212K, with over 60% college educated.
When cognitive elites cocoon themselves in affluent “Super Zip codes”, they deprive working-class neighborhoods of vitally needed social capital. Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2001) and Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion, 2008) have demonstrated the crucial role that religious and civic organizations play in promoting education, health and family cohesion, as well as fighting poverty and crime. Murray shows that socially and geographically isolating the affluent and well-educated from the rest of society undermines these private institutions where they are most needed.
This social stratification is driven by the ever-upward spiral of selective college admissions. As Murray shows, graduates of prestigious institutions tend both to marry one another and to live together in elite neighborhoods. Making UT and A&M into such elite gathering spots greatly exacerbates this socioeconomic segregation, threatening community, equality and ultimately democracy itself. The diversity that our students truly need is exposure to a diversity of levels of academic preparation and talent. All of our campuses should ideally represent a cross-section of the college-ready population of the state.
Is it practical to propose that top state universities practice open admissions? If more students want to attend UT-Austin and Texas A&M than can truly be accommodated there, a lottery is the only fair method. However, a lottery would not in fact be necessary: it is quite feasible for all the top state universities to serve every Texas resident who wants to attend them.
For example, at UT-Austin in 2010, there were 31,022 freshman applications. 14,583 (47%) were accepted, and 7275 (50% of admits, 23% of applicants) subsequently enrolled. If UT were to eliminate selective admissions, two things would happen: the number of applications would fall (since a non-selective campus is a less prestigious destination), and more of those admitted would come. These two factors would have opposing effects on the number of freshmen: let’s suppose that they cancel each other out. We should then expect that open admissions would result in an entering class of about 15,000, roughly double the current number. An entering class of 15,000 would translate into a total undergraduate population of about 53,000 (compared to 33,000 today).
Most UT classrooms are empty except during the most popular times during the weekday. A much greater number of students could easily be handled by making greater use of those classrooms (early morning, evening, weekends), by more online and video delivery of lectures, and by online discussion sections through video conferencing, along with hiring more teachers and increasing professors’ teaching loads. A generation ago, the average professor at UT-Austin taught four classes a semester, with about 150 students total. Today, no professor teaches more than two a semester, and many teach fewer than 30 students a year.
The Top 10% law (HB 588) results in more blacks and Hispanics admittances than does the ‘holistic’ admissions process: 27% Hispanic and 5% black vs. 12% Hispanic and 5% black. 89% of admitted blacks and 94% of admitted Hispanics came in under automatic HB 588 caps, without any racial discrimination whatsoever. In its brief for the Fisher case, UT-Austin admits (amazingly) that it wants racial discrimination not in order to admit more blacks and Hispanics but in order to admit more affluent minorities, on the theory that affluent minorities are more likely to shatter stereotypes. Here is UT’s statement on the subject (pp. 33-34 of its brief):
“Holistic review permits the consideration of diversity within racial groups… African-American and Hispanic students admitted through holistic review are, on average,… less likely to be the first in their families to attend college; tend to have more varied socioeconomic backgrounds; The African-American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas who has strong SAT scores and has demonstrated leadership ability in extracurricular activities but falls in the second decile of his or her high school class (or attends an elite private school that does not rank) cannot be admitted under the top 10% law. “(http://bit.ly/TcMzbI)
Thus, UT’s racial policy is, by their own admission, designed to make the student body less socioeconomically diverse, not more, with proportionately more affluent students and fewer poor students. Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it is time for Texas’s leaders to end this unjust and destructive racial and socioeconomic discrimination.