In the midst of all the current breast-beating about affirmative action, the Washington State Commission on African-American Affairs has found that data — provided by four-year institutions and compiled by the Washington State Office of Financial Management show that whites are the key beneficiaries of “special/alternative admission standards” and affirmative action affecting hiring at Washington States’s four-year schools. The beneficiaries include significant numbers of white men as well as white women.
This contradicts the public perception among many white Americans, even among some African Americans, of the effects of affirmative action.
The Commission’s findings clearly show that a broad schism exists between the public’s perceptions of affirmative action and the reality of affirmative action as practiced in both student enrollment and hiring at Washington State public four-year schools.
In keeping with the restrictions of the Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case, Washington state’s higher education system is devoid of any policies or programs that establish racial quotas for student enrollment. in April 1988, the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) approved minimum standards for freshmen admissions to public baccalaureate institutions. The primary criterion for admission is an indexed combination of high school grade point average, standardized test scores, and high school course completion.
Alternative admission standards allow admission of students whose combined indices of grades and standardized scores do not meet regular admission standards as defined by the HECB.
HECB policy limits the percentage of admissions that can be made under the alternative admission standards. No more than 15 percent of freshmen can be admitted using the alternative standard. Additionally, HECB policy was originally contemplated as an affirmative action tool to encourage increased enrollment of students of color.
Special/alternative admission standards have long been derided by critics of affirmative action as a “lowering of standards” which diminishes academic excellence and limits opportunities for those who are better qualified. To the degree that alternative admission standards can be viewed as a lowering of the bar, that bar is being jumped far more often by whites than by African Americans in Washington’s four-year schools.
Because access to Washington’s four-year public institutions is capped by the state legislature, demand for enrollment slots has almost always outstripped availability. This is particularly true when demand for post-graduate slots is considered in isolation.
In a July 27, 1995, memorandum to the Commission on African-American Affairs, the Washington State House of Representatives’ Office of Program Research reported statistical estimates of the “waiting line” of prospective students who could not gain admission to the state’s four-year schools. A total of 2,271 students were in the “waiting line after the follow-up.” More than 44 percent of those in the statewide waiting line were seeking to do post-baccalaureate studies at the University of Washington.
The Commission on African-American Affairs believes that much of the pent-up demand for graduate admissions is attributed to the extremely low odds of success for all students applying for graduate admissions. Many graduate programs offer a small number of admission slots to an ever-growing number of well-qualified applicants.
The University of Washington Law School, for example, admits fewer than 165 students each year — the same as 30 years ago — even though the state’s population has doubled in that time and the number of applicants to the school has tripled (700 to 2500).
Wallace D. Loh, the former dean of the University of Washington Law School, states that the “myth of racial displacement” has fueled much of the debate on affirmative action in higher education, Dean Loh stated, “the fact is that even if zero minorities were admitted, most qualified applicants would still be turned down.” This is because the UW Law School is one of the smallest public law schools in the country.
Employment in Higher Education
Washington State law requires affirmative action be taken for Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, people over the age of 40, people with disabilities, and disabled and Vietnam-era veterans. Such affirmative action applies in the areas of recruitment, appointment, promotion, transfer, training and career development. State rules require the development and implementation of goals and timetables and the establishment of a system for monitoring progress.
The Commission used data from the Department of Personnel to compare the rates at which white applicants are hired with the rates at which African Americans are hired. This comparison revealed that whites were hired at higher rates than African Americans in nine of the 15 categories examined.
These findings refute allegations that affirmative action efforts are giving African Americans an unfair advantage over whites, particularly where the exempt and classified categories of employment are concerned. In fact, these findings would support the inverse argument — that affirmative action efforts at the four-year schools should be enhanced to ensure that equal employment opportunities exist for African Americans, particularly in hiring.
The Commission would like to reiterate that its review of affirmative action in public higher education in Washington State show that whites have benefitted most from affirmative effort in hiring and student enrollment. It may well be that capacity at the four-year schools and straints on federal and state student aid are prompting a search for solutions to a very real decline in educational access. In the frenzied search for answers, affirmative action has been a convenient target.
Even if affirmative action were eliminated tomorrow, enrollment caps at many institutions would still exist, federal and state funds still would be tight, and access to higher education would be largely unchanged for people who find themselves in the higher educational waiting line.
JAMES KELLY, executive director for Washington state’s Commission on African-American Affairs.
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