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John Hood: UNC race policy passé

RALEIGH — Another wave of bad publicity and legal questions isn’t what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill needs. But that’s exactly what the school is getting, thanks to its longstanding and troubling use of race as a major factor in admissions.

In November, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed lawsuits against UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University for using racial preferences to deny admission to highly qualified Asian and white students whose average test scores and grade-point averages are significantly higher than those of students admitted via the preferences.

SFFA and other critics aren’t arguing that campus diversity is an impermissible goal for universities to pursue. Rather, their argument is that measuring diversity is tricky and that, given recent Supreme Court precedent, the use of race-based decisions is subject to “strict scrutiny.” In other words, university policymakers have to prove that they can’t pursue diversity by race-neutral means.

Since the initial wave of racial-preference lawsuits in the 1990s, a number of public and private institutions have reduced or eliminated their preferences in favor of such strategies as accepting all applicants who ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. It turns out that the resulting student bodies are about as diverse as those produced by consciously inserting race into the mix.

UNC-Chapel Hill leaders already know how such a policy would likely affect their campus, thanks to a study they commissioned in 2012. If a “top 10 percent” rule had been in place for applicants from North Carolina — who continue to make up the bulk of university enrollment — the share of UNC-CH students who were neither white nor Asian would have been about 16 percent, compared to the 15 percent share that actually occurred in 2012.

So why stick with racial preferences? If our goal is to diminish the role that race plays in decisions in government, business, education, and other institutions — and it should be — then the sooner we stop basing decisions on race, the better. It’s true that students in remote rural areas or distressed inner cities may have fewer opportunities than their peers from other places do. Compensating for that by, say, using a class rank criterion for university admissions is simply not the same thing as automatically giving a “plus factor” to students based on skin color or ethnicity.

Although many conservatives agree with this critique of racial preferences, they aren’t the only advocates of race-neutral alternatives. Quite a few left-leaning commentators, scholars, and education leaders agree. Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who passionately defends poverty-based diversity policies like the one Wake County schools used for many years. Shortly after SFFA filed its lawsuits, Kahlenberg wrote that policymakers seeking diverse student bodies need “new, better, and more equitable ways to get there than using race as a crude proxy for disadvantage” and that “it’s time for the old dogs at Harvard and Carolina to learn some new tricks.”

For its part, UNC-CH argues that moving to a race-neutral admissions policy might actually weaken rather than strengthen the school’s academic reputation. Its 2012 study found, for example, that guaranteeing enrollment for applicants graduating in the top 10 percent of their classes would tug its average SAT score down by 56 points. But as Kahlenberg pointed out, UNC-CH had previously defended the 200-point gap in average scores between its Asian and black students by arguing that “the SAT is a relatively crude predictor of academic performance.”

Within North Carolina, the SFFA lawsuit got some initial publicity and then faded from the headlines. You can expect it to return. Racial preferences in university admissions have never been popular, nor have they enjoyed rock-solid support in the courts. Past decisions have allowed for their use as a transitional policy while urging an end to all racial discrimination in the future.

That future is now.

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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