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Affirmative Action Often Hurts the People it Was Intended to Help

Affirmative Action Often Hurts the People it Was Intended to Help

“Every year thousands of black and Hispanic students, who have been led to believe that a college degree is well within reach and a first step toward economic success, are admitted to schools for which they barely qualify.”

Robert Weissberg makes a very compelling case on this topic at Minding the Campus:

The Affirmative Action Failure Machine

Affirmative action in today’s colleges and universities is a giant failure machine. Every year thousands of black and Hispanic students, who have been led to believe that a college degree is well within reach and a first step toward economic success, are admitted to schools for which they barely qualify. The inevitable consequence is failure, whether that means dropping out due to low grades, enrolling in remedial courses, or switching majors from a STEM field to a less demanding “studies” department. It’s not pleasant to always be at the bottom of the grading curve while classmates regularly out-perform you. Tellingly, this psychological injury cannot be ameliorated by celebrating diversity and creating segregated dorms. That academically troubled blacks and Hispanics often excelled in their high schools and enjoyed sky-high self-esteem will only deepen their feelings of inadequacy.

Failure per se is not the problem; it’s the reaction to falling short that is critical. Being unsuccessful is ubiquitous in a meritocracy that celebrates success. Elite schools reject nearly all applicants, while professional sports teams ruthlessly cull the inept. Most business start-ups fail. Of the utmost importance, however, is that those who try out for a sports team or start a business know from the very beginning that failure likely awaits them. They thus accept disappointment, albeit often painfully. It’s all part of the rat race—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of racial preferences do not seem to exhibit this quiet acceptance of failure. Rather than being thankful for the opportunity to compete with the very best, those who come up short often grow bitter and resentful. Such anger might seem rational, and is certainly understandable. These beneficiaries might ask: Who enticed me to enroll in a school where I was doomed to fail? Not me. Who’s responsible for telling me to waste years of my life? Not me. Or to acquire all this debt? Not me.

Anger then turns political, as the beneficiaries denounce the college or university as racist, biased against people of color, a bastion of white privilege, or worse. It would be as if those cut by an NFL team excoriated professional football as an evil scheme run by rich, white men designed to humiliate people by insisting on arbitrary, unrealistic standards for speed and dexterity.


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I think you misinterpret the purpose of so0called Affirmative Action. It is intended to help Liberals feel good about themselves. Also, to funnel large amounts of $$ in consulting fees to them. Lastly, it is intended to give them a club with which to hit their political enemies.

What AA may or may not do for/to the people it allegedly is intended to help is irrelevant as far as its proponents are concerned.

When I was a premed academic adviser at Harvard in the early 1970s, the effects of affirmative action mismatch were heartbreaking. I was running sections of organic chemistry tutorials where 99% of the students were premeds.

Most of these premeds were what we described as “pre-natal premeds,” meaning that they were raised in a family that expected them to become a doctor. Usually their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were mostly doctors, and they would feel like a failure if they didn’t go to Harvard and become a doctor. Their competition was intense. Many refused to help others, and some would even steal each others’ lab products.

Few of the Black premeds were pre-natal premeds. Most of them were the best and the brightest at their high schools, and they were skimmed off by Harvard admissions staff, who thought they were doing them a big favor by admitting them to Harvard. These are bright students who would excel in the premed classes at their state universities or some other less competitive environment. They could be expected to go on to medical school and become excellent doctors.

When these bright, highly motivated Black students encountered Harvard’s hypercompetitive premed environment, many of them crashed and burned. That had nothing to do with their being Black, but everything to do with their being chosen under different standards and then thrust into an environment where they could not compete successfully. The result was that many or most of Harvard’s Black premed students left the program and never became doctors. They often drifted into Afro or some other welcoming major that did not involve cutthroat competition.

Black students need to be advised not to accept admissions offers that will place them into schools where they are not likely to excel and fulfill their academic goals. I personally knew scores of Black students who would now be successful doctors if they gone to schools (like the one where I worked more recently) where they could compete successfully. Someone needs to tell them that an offer of admission based on a racial preference is likely to place them somewhere that they will be unable to compete effectively with the other students. Such offers are good for the school’s racial quotas, but bad for many of the affected students.

    BierceAmbrose in reply to OldProf2. | April 24, 2023 at 4:46 pm

    You’ve described something that extends further than blacks, pre-med, or Harvard. At least across the board, across all the “competitive” universities.

    There’s an “external support” element to that highly competitive environment.

    — Families who smooth the way, covering what the housing n support services don’t. Need an accountant while you’re earning your ride: family has one, or do the work to find one, or do it on your own and take the chance.

    — Connections let students calibrate courses, instructors, even timing when offered, using off-catalog info and flexibility in selection they have.

    — Support systems with in-groups and out-groups. Like the science frat that maintained a catalog of all the “chem 102” questions The One Prof pulled from. Four questions each for mid-term and final. You could *maybe* do most of one in the exam time, working from principles. If you had the catalog, just memorize and transcribe. Graded on a curve, of course. If you can’t get into that frat, you’re not getting a chem or chem e degree.

    There’s a cynicism in the connected “achievers”, managing their course load & GPA with their inside info, working the curve, a calculated game they learned from before birth to work the system to get that golden ticket.

    BTW, we called the folks who would sabotage others “throats” as in “cut-throats.” Important to realize when you are dealing with those and a system that permits, nay encourages, them.

      BierceAmbrose in reply to BierceAmbrose. | April 24, 2023 at 4:58 pm

      There’s a difference between playing hard and playing dirty. Now that I’m all grown up and cynical myself, I’ll even sometimes choose to play a game I know is dirty. “Higher ed” looks too dirty, even for me.

      The sin, perhaps crime, in “higher ed” is tagging the naive and idealistic, keeping them down and out, perhaps even damaged, under the flag of raising them up. Church molesters have nothing on these people.

      The folks who do this are beyond cynical. A kid I know was all excited about her college debt “forgiven” in a program promoted before the last election. (Coincidental timing, I am sure.)

      That didn’t happen, of course. It’s like The Evil Party noted — “Hey, they were dumb enough to buy the: College helps, and we’ll help you with that con. Maybe we can clip them again with votes for debt relief we don’t have to deliver — we already know they’re marks.”

      Meanwhile, the malignant expansion of administrators and justice-staff creates the same patron / client grift in “higher ed”, long-established in “public ed.” None of them have jobs without the subsidizing feds, extortionate collectors for people too craven to do their own robbing. Between them, they get their cut, on the backs of the young, naive, and helpless.

      Nice work, if you can stomach it.

Academically deficient youth are pushed to attend colleges for which they don’t objectively qualify, racking up a load of student debt that enslaves them into ives of desperation.

Economically deficient adults are pushed to own homes for which they don’t objectively qualify, racking up a load of mortgage debt that enslaves them and their families into lives of desperation.

Do we see a pattern here?

These folks’ “benefactors” no longer have to buy them from warring overseas tribes… they can instead be persuaded to swindle themselves into economic slavery.

    BierceAmbrose in reply to henrybowman. | April 24, 2023 at 5:03 pm

    It is also true that academically sufficient youth are drawn into colleges in which they don’t stand a chance for any number of other things.

    It’s ironic, but not surprising, that the folks who most trumpet structural disadvantage like race, sometimes wealth, so aggressively exclude any other compounding factors.

    So long as the institutions & operators pocket the money from results not attained, nothing will change. Worse, really, that they call it “attainment”, to color a situation they live in, as individual failing.

    If they taught anything, we’d all see this as The Fundamental Attribution Error. So, they’re triply incented to keep people dumb.