Race, sex and facts Affirmative action hasn't done enough

October 29, 1995|By K. Edward Renner

THE UNIVERSITIES of Maryland and California have recently ended official affirmative action programs. Similar decisions are under consideration at other institutions, apparently under the false belief that such programs have given minorities and females an unfair advantage. Rather, the opposite is true. These programs, after modest accomplishments in the early 1970s, have simply maintained the status quo; they have not corrected the accumulated effects of past discrimination with respect to access to higher education.

The most controversial issue about affirmative action in higher education is admission based on race. As the absolute number of people of color on campuses has increased, concerns have been expressed that these students are supplanting more qualified whites. Here are some little-publicized facts that are important for discussion:

* From 1970 to 1993 (which are the most recent figures available), the absolute number of white college students increased from 7 million to 11 million. This happened even though the percentage of whites has declined in the general population and among the group of traditional 18-to-24-year-old college students.

* From 1970 to 1993, the absolute number of college students of color increased from 500,000 to 2 million. However, at the same time, the percentage of people of color in the population and among the group of traditional-aged college students also has increased.

The net result has been that two decades of affirmative action has not resulted in any relative gains for people of color. Only whites have made relative progress. Whites have increased their access to higher education from a participation rate of 32 percent to 42 percent, while people of color have remained at a constant level of about 30 percent over the same period -- from 1978 on, the date from which participation rate figures are available. The greater absolute numbers of minority students enrolled in colleges and universities is the simple result of increased numbers in the population.

These figures give a peculiar twist to the criticism that affirmative action has involved a lowering of "standards" for minorities and that people of color are "supplanting" more qualified whites.

Giving whites a break

Rather, since whites have made relative gains, the opposite must be true: Standards have been lowered or opportunities increased for whites, not for people of color. This conclusion is based on the fact that white participation has increased faster than the growth of the absolute numbers of whites in the general population, but minority participation has not.

Actually, the historical picture puts the degree of progress achieved to date in a more positive light than is justified. In fact, most of the absolute gains achieved by people of color were made in the early to middle 1970s, when over a seven-year period enrollment increased from 500,000 to 1.5 million. In the years since, there has been very little additional progress.

The past two decades have been a holding pattern with respect to the relative position of minorities; in terms of absolute numbers, for every additional student of color, there have been two additional white students.

In addition to race, greater gender equality has been the goal of affirmative action in higher education. Again, an examination of seldom-quoted facts is illuminating:

* In 1970, approximately 5.5 million males and 4 million women were enrolled in higher education. By 1990, the absolute number of women increased to 7 million.

* Women of all ages have not matched the gains made by women in general. In 1975, young women caught up with the enrollment rate of young men. Since then, there have been only small relative gains made by young women. Older women largely account for the growing numerical advantage women now hold in terms of enrollment in higher education.

* Between 1970 and 1990, the number of mature women enrolled in colleges and universities has increased ten-fold, while mature men have only increased two-fold. All of the gains by men were made before 1975, while the number of mature women has been steadily increasing each year.

Mature women, particularly those over 35, are now claiming their rightful place in the economy. They are doing this by returning to higher education to gain new or additional credentials. Mature men, for whatever reasons or circumstances, have not been willing or able to do likewise.

The result is that mature women are now increasingly in a position to compete with their male peers.

Out of proportion

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