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Tobias '12: Putting affirmative action in context

Affirmative action is back in the news. The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that challenges the constitutionality of racial consideration in admissions at public universities. Because many private institutions accept government funds, any ruling that ends racial considerations in public admissions will probably also affect private colleges. The result could be a complete reshaping of admissions policies throughout higher education, including at Brown.

Affirmative action is a challenging topic because it often brings up very strong feelings related to race, racial inequality and the concept of discrimination — and its counterpart, "reverse discrimination."

Let's first take a step back and consider the difficulty of making admissions decisions. What should universities consider when deciding which students to admit?

Grades seem like an easy first choice, but they come tinged with complicating circumstances. Is an A at one school the same as an A at another? Is even one teacher at one school like another at that same school?

The fact remains that context clearly matters when it comes to factoring grades into admissions decisions. Intuitively it makes sense that an A in an Advanced Placement course should be more valuable than an A in the non-AP course. It seems reasonable that an A- in the AP course is still better than an A in the non-AP course. But where is the cut-off? What about a B- in an AP course? Is it worse, the same or better than getting the A in the non-AP course?

If we accept that the difficulty of academic coursework is important contextual information, then it follows that the non-academic circumstances can also be important. The student who is getting an A but goes home and studies all afternoon certainly has an unfair advantage over the student who is also getting an A while playing varsity sports all afternoon. But what if the varsity athlete is getting an A-? Would she be getting an A if it were not for the sports?

Playing sports may be optional, but for teenagers from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, working a part-time job after school may not be. For these students, who often have fewer resources, that A- might be worth a lot more than the A is worth for the wealthy student who has all afternoon to study.

If one accepts that in certain situations context matters, then the question becomes which considerations are acceptable. Starting with the examples above, one could easily come up with 100 other circumstances to consider when looking at the nuances that differentiate applicants.

It is very difficult for many to accept that race should be considered. Far too often, racial considerations have erected barriers and prevented those who were otherwise entirely qualified from being considered for a job or entry to a selective university. The history of racial discrimination in this country is sadly a long one.

But the Supreme Court should not mandate which contextual factors universities should be allowed to consider when it comes to making admissions decisions. Saying that race is off-limits will lead to a slippery slope that allows the court to strike down policies that take into account any context. If race is off-limits, where do you draw the line, if in theory any factors could be tossed out?

The result is a legal precedent that will reward students who purposefully do not take more challenging courses or participate in extracurricular activities. For those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds — either because English is not their first language, or they were poor, or they faced prejudice — such a decision by the court would be devastating.

At the end of the day, universities should get to accept the class they want based on a set of factors they decide to be important. There is a lot more to an academic experience than the professors a university hires. Peers play a huge role in the academic experience through group projects, study groups, class discussion and more. If a university values diversity in education, then an admissions officer will think that sitting in a classroom with an athlete, a musician, someone from a foreign country or even someone with a different ethnic background adds to the academic experience.

The only question a university's admissions committee should be required to answer is whether the applicant in question has the ability to complete the work at that school. As long as someone can do the work, when it comes to making an admissions decision, admissions officers should be allowed to consider whichever factors they deem significant.

Ethan Tobias '12 managed to write this despite being a thesis-writing, job-applying senior. He can be reached at


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