Affirmative action and equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome

Since the Supreme Court recently decided to take on a case that involves using race in college admissions, I was intrigued to run across a new sociological study that suggests people with more education are not more likely to support affirmative action.

“I think this study is important because there’s a common view that education is uniformly liberalizing, and this study shows—in a number of cases—that it’s not,” said study author Geoffrey T. Wodtke, a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan…

Wodtke’s study finds that while being better educated does not increase the likelihood that whites and minorities approve of affirmative action in the workplace, it does increase the probability that they support race-targeted job training. “The distinction between those two policies is that one is opportunity enhancing and the other is outcome equalizing,” Wodtke said. “I think that some of the values that are promoted through education, such as individualism and meritocracy, are just much more consistent with opportunity enhancing policies like job training than they are with redistributive or outcome equalizing policies like affirmative action.”…

According to Wodtke, there could be a couple of reasons why more educated blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to support affirmative action in the workplace than are their less educated peers. “One possibility is that affirmative action programs may have the unintended effect of stigmatizing people who have benefited from them,” Wodtke said. “As a result of this stigmatization, people who have seemingly benefitted from affirmative action may just lose faith in the efficacy of these programs to overcome racial discrimination in the labor market.”

Another possibility is that people with more advanced educations, regardless of race, become socialized in such a way that their own support for more radical social policies is somewhat diluted, Wodtke said. “The data suggest that one ideological function of the formal educational system is to marginalize ideas and values that are particularly challenging to existing power structures, perhaps even among those that occupy disadvantaged social positions,” Wodtke said.

I assume Wodtke addresses this in his article: who then does support affirmative action and do supporters primarily see it as a way to improve their standing in society?

I like the way this is framed in terms of equality and this is a way that I talk about inequality in my introduction to sociology class: as a country (or within other institutions) we could aim for different kinds of equality. Equality of opportunity is a more common American response and suggests that it is the role of government and other institutions to try to offer a level playing field, particularly in education, but then individuals have choices about how they respond to that. If people don’t succeed or don’t take opportunities provided for them, it is their fault. Of course, this view is limited in that it is extremely individualistic and fails to account for structural issues (race, class, gender to start) that affect the ability of individuals to respond to these choices.

On the other hand, we could set up a system that is aiming more for equality of outcome where different individuals end up at similar places. In this view, people or groups may need extra resources or help to get to these more equal outcomes. To steal an idea from my wife, this could be the difference between being equal and fair: acting equally in the classroom could mean devoting the same amount of time to each student while being fair would mean devoting more time to the students who need a little more help. (Another way to put it: if you were the student who needed the extra help, would you rather it be an equal or fair classroom?) This reminds me of a discussion from last year about the education system in Finland where the goal was not to have the highest achieving students but rather to bring up the bottom group of students and have more proficient students overall. This may also take the form of a more comprehensive safety net or baseline standard of living where citizens are guaranteed a certain level of income, health care, and housing.

Having this larger discussion about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcomes, how far we would want to lean toward one or the other as a country, and what policy routes would help us achieve our stated goal might be more productive in the long run instead of having skirmishes in court about particular policies every few years.

Sociologist argues that SATs not the best predictor of college success

In another round of the battles over standardized testing, a Wake Forest sociologist argues that the SAT is not the best predictor of college performance:

His conclusion? SATs don’t tell us much about how well a student will perform in college.

A better predictor of college success lies in a student’s high school grade-point average, class rank and course selection, Soares said…

Soares is editor of a new book, “SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions,” that takes a critical look at the SAT while calling for a rethinking of the college admissions process…

When it dropped the SAT option, Wake Forest revamped its admissions process, beefing up its written response section and encouraging students to be interviewed by an admissions officer, a move that created a huge logistical challenge for the school.

This is not a small argument: as the article notes, this is a multi-billion dollar industry.

I wouldn’t be surprised if more schools continued to play around with the admissions processes, both to get around some of the difficulties with particular measures but also to get a competitive advantage in grabbing good students before other schools realize what is going on (the Moneyball approach to admissions?).

A new way to do the college search process: one comprehensive website to match students to colleges

The policy director of an education think tank writes in Washington Monthly, itself a purveyor of college rankings, that the future of college admissions will come in the form of a single, comprehensive website that will match prospective students and colleges:

This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.

This won’t just help the brightest, most driven kids. Bad matching is a problem throughout higher education, from top to bottom. Among all students who enroll in college, most will either transfer or drop out. For African American students and those whose parents never went to college, the transfer/dropout rate is closer to two-thirds. Most students don’t live in the resource-rich, intensely college-focused environment that upper-middle-class students take for granted. So they often default to whatever college is cheapest and closest to home. Tools like ConnectEDU will give them a way to find something better.

We can think of getting into college like this: students need to be slotted into the appropriate school. At this point, students can do certain things to improve their fit and colleges use certain information (though it often comes in a form of a narrative about students that admissions officers construct – I highly recommend Creating a Class). Our current system is highly dependent on students doing the initial legwork in searching out colleges that might fit them but as this article suggests, there are a number of students, particularly poorer students, who don’t do well in this system.

If this website idea catches on, wouldn’t it create more competition within the college market for students? If so, would middle- and upper-class students start complaining?

Also, while the article suggests a website like this is the answer to helping kids who can’t currently play the college game, doesn’t it rest on the idea that (1) people have equal access to this website and (2) that users have the ability or “cultural capital” to sort through the information the website presents? Neither of these might necessarily be true.

h/t Instapundit