Public higher education is not a reward for hard work


Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.


5 thoughts on “Public higher education is not a reward for hard work

  1. I have an idea. You find an individual mentor for each needy student in each field of study. For example, you have a student that needs mentoring in chemistry and you connect them with a retired chemistry professor. Having once been a student at CSUDH, I understand that there are many “minority” students that are very bright and do not need mentoring, but there are also plenty that do need it. For example, they might need someone who can help them figure out how to better manage their time, or maybe they just need a little more stimulation from the attention of an important other. It’s worth a try.

    I’ve been mentoring on the Planting Science website for several years now, and some of the young students really seem to thrive under the encouragement of a scientist mentor. Others really cannot seem to be helped, they are just not interested.

  2. Good points Terry. There is an additional problem here. If historically disadvantaged students have already been left behind in primary and secondary school are we doing them a favor by throwing them in the deep end at the most selective of state funded Universities. Dropout rates are just as skewed as acceptance rates. This is a bottomless can of worms and likely always will be. But I think you are on the right track with frank statements about what we want to achieve with public education and honest discussion about how things came to be the way they are now.

    • Agreed – admitting students who are underprepared, without adequate support, is a big problem. We have that at my university, as a serious fraction of students require remedial work in english and/or math to meet the standard baseline criteria. And we’re not doing enough for them, but we are with the scant resources available. But for people who say that affirmative action is unfair because Asians get into college because of hard work? They can stuff that argument.

  3. Or, how about we just adequately fund our public schools and give everyone an opportunity?

    If those retired chemistry professors can provide these students with quality preschool, and show up at night and read to them at bedtime in kindergarten while their parents are working three jobs to stay just below the poverty line, then maybe they could make a difference.

  4. I always wonder if people mean ‘systemic’ or ‘systematic’ discrimination and racism. They’re quite different charges.

    My lamentation with affirmative action in admissions is that it seems to be correcting problems on a generational time scale, which seems quite a while. I’d like to think there are quicker solutions though I don’t know what they are.

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