Published on Monday, May 21, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Preferences for the Rich Grease the Way to College
by William Marshall
Opponents of affirmative action--the ones who believe that this
country is committed to equal opportunity based on pure merit--are
unhappy with last week's decision by the University of California regents
ending the ban on affirmative action in the UC system.
Although I agree with the regents' decision, I invite the opponents to join me in fighting another form of discrimination in admissions: the practice of relaxing standards to admit the scions of large donors. Fighting against these "wealth preferences" should be philosophically consistent with the anti-affirmative action position that admissions should be based entirely on merit. After all, what merit is there simply in having been born into a wealthy family?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the anti-affirmative action folks have not raised the cry against wealth preferences. But why should affirmative action for the wealthy be considered less objectionable than policies that would give traditionally underrepresented groups an advantage in getting into prestigious institutions? I would think the distinction cuts the other way.
First, unlike minority students, wealthy kids generally have not been educated in some of the nation's worst secondary schools. Indeed, there is an almost a 100% correlation between having lots of money and attending really good high schools. There is therefore no need to adjust admissions standards to give these kids an edge just because their parents are wealthy.
Second, unlike affirmative action for minorities, wealth preferences cannot be defended on the grounds that wealthy students have suffered a history of discrimination and/or continue to suffer the effects of a demoralizing stigmatization. Who ever heard of a prestigious institution where the wealthy had been systematically excluded? Who ever heard of "wealth profiling"?
Third, wealth preferences cannot be justified on the grounds that admission to the nation's best schools would help assure that all groups have access to the highest echelons of corporate power. After all, right there in the highest corridors of power are the wealthy kids' very own parents.
It's interesting that the opponents of affirmative action are often the same people who, rather than being committed to leveling playing fields for all, are committed to enhancing the advantages of wealth, i.e., eliminating the estate tax and reducing the progressiveness of the tax code. So, again, I am asking: Are the arguments against affirmative action really based on lofty notions of equal opportunity, or are they based on protecting the existing privileges of those who need it the least?
William Marshall, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was Deputy White House Counsel during the Clinton Administration.
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