What Supreme Court missed on use of race in admissions

In its hearing on affirmative action at the University of Texas, the Supreme Court didn't weigh how much higher education can make itself more accessible to all.

AP Photo
Abigail Fisher, right, who sued the University of Texas, walks outside the Supreme Court Oct. 10. The court heard her case against the use of race in college admissions.

In a case heard Wednesday, the US Supreme Court justices were at odds over whether to end affirmative action in higher education. Should race still be a factor in university admissions? Or, as the other side argued, can the goals of diversity and racial justice be achieved without further discrimination?

No matter how this divided court rules, what was missing from the arguments was any challenge to the idea that higher education has so few openings that it must dole them out through preferences, whether by race or – an alternative path – by income.

This notion of scarcity has long pervaded the ivy halls of academia. And yet it is being challenged today as never before. Universities are being forced to change by advances in online learning, by competition from for-profit schools, by a parent rebellion over tuition, and by cash-strapped governments demanding proof of skills learned.

Schools wouldn’t need to fight over issues like race if they would lift the perception of education as a limited good and adopt new ways to expand the pie of learning.

Take the online education revolution. It has already started to lower the costs of learning with economies of scale. Fewer professors in expensive buildings are needed when courses can be taught by Skype and other remote means. Like many industries, universities are facing the disruptive challenge of the Internet age.

Elite schools like Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard have joined this technological bandwagon with “free” courseware on the Internet. A study by Ithaka S+R released last spring showed the level of learning online is the same as in a traditional classroom, even for students from low-income families.

E-learning doesn’t need to be only mass-produced. It allows education to be tailored to a student’s interests, schedule, and finances. New companies, such as Udemy, Course Hero, and OpenClass, offer innovative online delivery systems that rely on the “best” teachers.

For-profit schools, too, are forcing higher ed to become more nimble and oriented to students, driving down costs. A Senate committee study in July found such schools “have proven successful for hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have obtained degrees.” Another innovator is Western Governors University, which has used online learning to allow students to finish a degree in 30 months rather than 50, and keep tuition around $6,000.

Higher ed is long overdue for productivity improvements. Many schools are privatizing services, reducing bloated administrations, and eliminating unpopular courses. They are appealing to thrifty students by dropping out of the “arms race” over expensive sport facilities, fancy dorms, or fine dining.

Opening up even prestigious higher education to more people may eventually end the demand for easier access to disadvantaged Americans. It may take a while yet. But racial inequality will be better reduced by an expansive view of education itself than by many more years of racial preferences.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to What Supreme Court missed on use of race in admissions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today