The Supreme Court hears arguments today in two cases that challenge the University of Michigan's use of race in admissions. A decision, expected by this summer, could influence career paths for millions of young minority Americans.
But no matter which way the justices come down on this divisive issue, the case has one big failing: It doesn't address the way many universities relax academic standards to admit certain black or Hispanic students for the sake of campus diversity - but then force these students arriving with lower test scores to sink or swim under the school's rigorous academic standards.
This practice of admitting less qualified students also applies to star athletes and children of alumni or big donors who often fail to make the academic cutoff with their SAT scores and other measures. Many campuses are filled with students playing catch-up in their studies; these students often end up dropping out of school after they receive poor or below-average grades.
By senior year, the racial diversity of an entire student class can decline dramatically. Studies show that graduation rates for students admitted under racial preferences are much lower in schools where those students' SAT scores were far below those of other students.
Minority students drop out of college for a host of reasons - lack of money, family problems, low expectations. Compounding that problem is the practice of placing students in schools that are too competitive, given the students' past education.
A five-year study sponsored by the Council of Ivy Group Presidents and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that African-American students with 1300 or higher on their SATs had much lower grades at liberal-arts and Ivy League schools than those who went to state universities or historically black institutions. The conclusion: If fewer black students were admitted to prestigious schools under affirmative action, they'd go to less competitive schools where they'd earn better grades, have higher rates of graduation, and be more likely to go to graduate school.
Such studies reveal the mixed blessings of seeking diversity through racial preferences. Many schools try to compensate for this problem by offering remedial courses to failing minorities. (The National Collegiate Athletic Association is wisely thinking of punishing schools that don't boost star athletes' graduation rates.)
Minorities have made impressive gains in college participation. Racial preferences have helped. But using blacks or Hispanics to enrich the campus experience for all can often damage the education of minorities.
No court can solve this problem. The universities must do it.