The U.S. isn't ready for race-blind admissions

Affirmative action is a necessary counterweight to rampant educational inequality

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan's statewide ban on affirmative action in its public universities on Tuesday, once again reviving the debate over the necessity and effectiveness of the practice.

The 6-2 ruling itself was arguably a statement on voters' and states' rights - had they ruled against the ban, the Court would have been overturning a proposal already passed by Michigan voters. The decision also implicitly supported similar laws in seven other states that have disallowed affirmative action in university admissions.

A practice that separates students based on their race and ethnicity isn't laudable, but the United States remains a nation in which many minority students are separated regardless. Fifteen years of information on the country's 97,000 public schools reveals how deeply racial difference can divide educational experiences.

The study, released last month, revealed that minority students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts (even in pre-K programs), more likely to attend high schools with first-year or sub-standard teachers and have unequal access to math and science courses like calculus and chemistry.

Affirmative action cannot eliminate this inequality. But it can help mitigate these issues after the fact. Until the nation's education system is repaired, it's not realistic to argue that affirmative action should be banned. As long as race affects students' educational experiences in grade school, race has to remain a factor in university admissions.

In states that have banned affirmative action in their public universities, minority enrollment has suffered. In California, for example, where the effects were the most dramatic, the enrollment gap between Hispanics and the rest of the state's college-aged residents increased sharply after the ban at public universities like University of California Berkeley and University of California Los Angeles.

The results were less severe in other states including Florida and Texas, where enrollment gaps were only marginally affected, but the trend is clear nonetheless: affirmative action is successful in increasing minority enrollment at universities.

Despite these statistics and despite its necessity, affirmative action remains deeply flawed. It is limited in its effectiveness, because it only applies to enrollment. Although affirmative action can help students get into college, it offers no assistance once they've arrived on campus.

Students who receive subpar educations struggle more in college classes than their classmates, and understandably so. Attending an elite university is not automatically beneficial and can prove detrimental to students who aren't prepared for the courses.

Duke economists, who studied this idea of "mismatch," found that the problem is particularly prevalent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, where concepts tend to build off of each other. Students who did not learn the fundamentals in high school are at a severe disadvantage once again - and in this case, affirmative action can't help.

Affirmative action remains an important tool to help minority students. But admission is a far cry from graduation; colleges need to be prepared to help struggling students once they've arrived. Ongoing support programs, like UB's Educational Opportunity Program (which works with students at an educational or economic disadvantage, regardless of race), should be available at universities nationwide.

Ideally, affirmative action would not be necessary. The problem of educational inequality should be addressed long before students reach college. But for now, race-blind admissions are still an ideal. They are a goal that the United States should strive to reach, a reward that needs to be earned by the development of a society defined by equality.

The United States isn't there yet. As a nation, we have a history of violent discrimination and racism, and the legacy of inequality that the past has generated remains a pervasive element of society today. Affirmative action, despite its flaws, helps to combat this legacy.