Opinion: Level the playing field for college admissions

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

May 11, 2021

By Michael Dannenberg

This op-ed first appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on May 5, 2021.

Each year politicians provide millions to selective colleges and ask virtually nothing in return. In Virginia, that has allowed a de facto segregated system by class and race to fester.

Five of the 11 worst public colleges in the country on working class and low-income student access are located in Virginia: the University of Virginia, College of William & Mary, James Madison University, Virginia Military Institute and Christopher Newport University. Each compares unfavorably to peer institutions with similar admissions standards.

All these colleges support race-based affirmative action, but year after year enroll only 5-7% Black students as if they can’t do better. Johns Hopkins University has higher admissions standards than each and yet its Class of 2024 is 14% Black and 17% Hispanic.

New campus building names and memorials get attention and are worthy actions, but barely begin to unravel and remedy decades of systemic racism, exploitation, and their present-day manifestations at universities that are supposed to be vehicles for social repair and advancement. To push higher education to evidence a meaningful commitment to diversity, socioeconomic mobility, and justice, we need government action that ensures admissions reform, accountability for commitments to equity, and in many cases, institutional reparations.

Take admissions. Typically, 10-15% of students at highly selective colleges benefit from a legacy preference. Between 40-50% benefit from binding early admission, which prevents students from comparing financial aid packages. The former is worth 160 extra points on the SAT; the latter, 100 points. Beneficiaries are overwhelmingly white and upper income.

Last month, the Colorado House of Representatives passed the first bill to ban the legacy preference at public colleges. Almost 20 years ago, U.Va. voluntarily ended binding early decision admission before quietly bringing it back. Lawmakers should follow those leads and end both.

Lawmakers should also encourage colleges to take affirmative steps toward equity in college access — better recruitment, class-based affirmative action that supplements race-based, and new no-loan policies — by, crucially, holding college leaders accountable for results.

Legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., challenges colleges to enroll a minimum share of Pell Grant recipients or pay a fee to under resourced colleges doing access work the so-called elite colleges should be doing.

Coons has championed the proposal, endorsed by the National Education Association and Thurgood Marshall College Fund, even though the University of Delaware is one of the 11 worst public colleges on Pell Grant student enrollment. Virginia lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and education committee members U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott and Donald McEachin should do the same.

But true justice requires giving people and institutions their due. For descendants of formerly enslaved people, that’s a complex political and policy challenge for which the leading proposal is to establish a commission to recommend policy options.

It’s much less difficult to identify colleges that have benefited from slavery and segregation and provide aid to those, particularly public colleges, harmed by both. Those reparations can happen now.

U.Va. was built by enslaved persons. It has  a $10 billion endowment amassed in large part through a racial wealth gap built generation upon generation.

In comparison, HBCUs Virginia State University and Norfolk State University enroll Pell Grant students at rates six times higher than U.Va. and more than half of all Black bachelor degree-seeking students in Virginia. Their endowments are 100 and 400 times less than U.Va.’s.

In March, Maryland agreed to pay its four HBCUs $577 million over the next 10 years to settle a lawsuit brought by those institutions. Virginia shouldn’t need a lawsuit to do right by its HBCUs.

As Virginia and the nation comes to further grips with historic injustices and present-day manifestations, its leaders, or at least its wealthiest, largely inaccessible colleges should work to eradicate systemic racism, ensure equitable opportunity, and remedy past wrongs.

Justice deferred doesn’t diminish, and it doesn’t come cheap.

Michael Dannenberg is a vice president at Education Reform Now, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C.