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.

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