Does Michigan Need Affirmative Action?

The state’s selective universities are going to have a hard time ensuring diversity without it.

Students and other attendees listen as US President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 27, 2012 expanding on his State of the Union proposals to keep college affordable and within reach for all Americans. AFP Photo/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
April 28, 2014, 8:29 a.m.

Michigan voters don’t want pub­lic uni­versit­ies to treat ap­plic­ants dif­fer­ently based on sex, race, or na­tion­al ori­gin. The Su­preme Court, in the rul­ing Schuette v. Co­ali­tion to De­fend Af­firm­at­ive Ac­tion, said last week that’s just fine. But without af­firm­at­ive ac­tion, Michigan’s pub­lic uni­versit­ies could be­come as se­greg­ated as its pub­lic schools. 

Na­tion­ally, white col­lege ap­plic­ants with high grades and test scores greatly out­num­ber sim­il­arly qual­i­fied Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic stu­dent ap­plic­ants. At the same time, minor­ity stu­dents are overrep­res­en­ted in pub­lic com­munity col­leges, which are open to every­one, and un­der­rep­res­en­ted at the most se­lect­ive U.S. uni­versit­ies, ac­cord­ing to the Geor­getown Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force

One reas­on for this split is that minor­ity stu­dents are more likely to grow up clustered to­geth­er in high-poverty neigh­bor­hoods. “We have an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem that is very, very se­greg­ated, and the brute fact is that the qual­ity of your high school edu­ca­tion is fre­quently de­pend­ent on the in­come level of your ZIP code,” says Ter­rence Mc­Don­ald, former dean of the Col­lege of Lit­er­at­ure, Sci­ence, and the Arts at the Uni­versity of Michigan.

Without af­firm­at­ive ac­tion, Mc­Don­ald says, it’s very hard for a se­lect­ive col­lege like the Uni­versity of Michigan to as­semble a fresh­man class with stu­dents from all back­grounds.

Michigan has a shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion that’s 78 per­cent white, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Census Bur­eau. In 2020, pro­jects the West­ern In­ter­state Com­mis­sion for High­er Edu­ca­tion, white stu­dents will still ac­count for about three-quar­ters of Michigan’s pub­lic high school gradu­ates. All the state’s pub­lic uni­versit­ies, and par­tic­u­larly the flag­ship Uni­versity of Michigan (Ann Ar­bor), are in­creas­ingly re­cruit­ing out-of-state stu­dents as Michigan’s col­lege-age pop­u­la­tion de­clines.

There’s a deep di­vide between the state’s more af­flu­ent white pop­u­la­tion and its Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic res­id­ents, who are more likely to be born to low-in­come par­ents. The Civil Rights Pro­ject at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Los Angeles) fre­quently rates Michigan’s schools as among the most se­greg­ated in the coun­try for black stu­dents: In 2012, its re­search­ers found that one-third of black stu­dents in the state at­ten­ded pub­lic schools where less than 1 per­cent of the stu­dent body was white.

The end res­ult is pre­dict­able. White stu­dents in Michigan get high­er test scores start­ing in ele­ment­ary school. They take more rig­or­ous courses in high school, earn high­er SAT and ACT scores, and are more likely to go on to col­lege. Only 53 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic ninth-graders in Michigan gradu­ate from high school in four years, and just 32 per­cent of minor­ity high-school gradu­ates go dir­ectly on to col­lege, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 re­port from the Michigan Con­sor­ti­um for Edu­ca­tion­al Re­search. 

As in oth­er states, Michigan’s pub­lic two-year and four-year cam­puses tend to draw their stu­dents from the sur­round­ing area — mean­ing that en­roll­ment re­flects loc­al demo­graph­ics. The more se­lect­ive col­leges get, the few­er minor­ity and low-in­come stu­dents they en­roll. About half of un­der­gradu­ates at Wayne State Uni­versity in De­troit are non­white. But Wayne State ad­mits about three-quar­ters of ap­plic­ants, and it has a six-year gradu­ation rate of just 28 per­cent.

Mean­while, the Uni­versity of Michigan’s un­der­gradu­ate stu­dent body in Ann Ar­bor is al­most two-thirds white, with about 16 per­cent of stu­dents re­ceiv­ing fed­er­al Pell Grants, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. Last year, just 5 per­cent of in-state fresh­men were Afric­an-Amer­ic­an; about 19 per­cent of the state’s col­lege-age res­id­ents are black.

Without spe­cial ef­forts to re­cruit and en­roll a di­verse stu­dent body — strategies that could in­volve en­rolling stu­dents with lower-than-av­er­age SAT scores, or of­fer­ing tar­geted schol­ar­ships — it’s al­most in­ev­it­able that top uni­versit­ies will stay ho­mo­gen­eous.

“In the United States, the prob­lem has be­come not that we have ra­cist or class-biased in­sti­tu­tions,” says An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force. “It’s that we have col­or-blind or class-neut­ral in­sti­tu­tions that, in our eco­nomy and in our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, … now sys­tem­at­ic­ally pro­duce in­tergen­er­a­tion­al re­pro­duc­tion of race and class priv­ilege.”

Un­der the af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion ban, the Uni­versity of Michigan’s ad­mis­sions team can’t take even small steps to give cer­tain ap­plic­ants pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, such as waiv­ing ap­plic­a­tion fees. Private uni­versit­ies all over the coun­try can. “Es­sen­tially, if you are a well-fun­ded private school, you now have the abil­ity to do much bet­ter in the re­cruit­ment of un­der­rep­res­en­ted stu­dents than al­most any high-qual­ity pub­lic uni­versity,” Mc­Don­ald says.

The best the Uni­versity of Michigan can do is in­crease out­reach. The uni­versity has found, for ex­ample, that low-in­come stu­dents in the state wildly over­es­tim­ate tu­ition costs and un­der­es­tim­ate fin­an­cial-aid avail­ab­il­ity. Many aren’t ap­ply­ing as a res­ult, even when their grades and test scores would mer­it ad­mis­sion and their fam­ily in­comes might res­ult in gen­er­ous aid pack­ages.

In the years right be­fore Michigan’s 2006 ban on af­firm­at­ive ac­tion went in­to ef­fect, the Uni­versity of Michigan gradu­ated 10 per­cent more Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans than the three top Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia in­sti­tu­tions com­bined, ac­cord­ing to Wil­li­am Kid­der, as­sist­ant prov­ost at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (River­side). (Cali­for­nia banned af­firm­at­ive ac­tion in 1998.) Since Michigan’s ban, en­roll­ment of black fresh­men at both the Uni­versity of Michigan and Michigan State Uni­versity has de­clined, as these charts from The New York Times demon­strate. 

“We ought not sit back and wish away, rather than con­front, the ra­cial in­equal­ity that ex­ists in our so­ci­ety,” Justice So­nia So­to­may­or wrote last week, dis­sent­ing with the Su­preme Court’s de­cision to up­hold Michigan’s af­firm­at­ive-ac­tion ban. A state man­date that pub­lic uni­versit­ies treat ap­plic­ants equally, des­pite in­equal­ity in K-12 edu­ca­tion, di­min­ishes the abil­ity of pub­lic uni­versit­ies to en­cour­age so­cial mo­bil­ity.

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