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January 18, 2003

Letter to Rosemary


Thanks for your comment on my blog. I read your story and I'm sorry to hear about the trouble you had getting in to U of M. I'm sure you know a lot more about the specifics of U of M than I do, and you're right -- there are many high schools in our country where the top 10% of the graduating class will not be middle class and wealthy (or white). Therefore, Bush's "Texas 10 Percent Plan" would definitely make for a certain amount of diversity in college admissions. However, looking at the big picture (even just in a state like Michigan), I doubt there are enough of these schools to ensure that minority enrollment at our nation's most prestigious universities is even close to proportionate with the minority population of the country. In fact, there's plenty of evidence to this effect -- see, for example, this article from the Detroit Free Press which discusses the effects of Bush's and other plans that attempt to achieve diversity w/out regard to race.

As for whether Michigan's admissions policy is exclusionary, well, you're right -- it absolutely is. By definition, Michigan (and any other school) has to exclude the majority of people who apply; therefore, perhaps admissions policies should more appropriately be called "exclusions policies." And yes, unfortunately, you were one of the many excluded from U of M. Were you excluded because you're of European descent? Perhaps. However, there could have been any number of other reasons. I know that one thing admissions committees usually consider is age and maturity -- not because they have prejudice against people who are too young, but simply because they know they're not doing anyone any good if they admit someone who is not emotionally and psychologically mature enough to handle the pressures of college. Since you graduated from H.S. early, it seems possible that the admissions committee decided not to admit you because they thought you'd be more successful in school if you waited a year? It also seems very possible that some of those "less academically qualified" minorities you knew who were admitted had been through different life experiences that suggested to the admissions committee that they were better prepared for challenges they'd face at the university. I assume by "less academically qualified" you mean by this that they had lower GPAs or test scores? Or are you also considering honor societies and club memberships? What about work experience? What about the neighborhood they grew up in? What about participation in volunteer and civic activities? What about that whole "overcoming adversity" thing? Which do you think is the most qualified 18-year-old: The straight-A student who has grown up in a relatively stable family and home (someone with "all the trimmings"), or the B or C student who ended up in jail by the time he/she was 14 and then turned his/her life around in the final years of high school and wrote a great essay showing how committed he/she is to success in college? From where I sit, there's no easy answer to that question, but I'm sure it's one admissions committees have to face more often than you think.

Finally, I wonder if the divide on this issue comes down to how we view ourselves and each other. If an admissions committee thinks your success in high school was the result of your individual merit and effort, they're going to try to reward you for that and admit you. OTOH, if the committee thinks your success was the result of your individual merit and effort combined with your circumstances in life (parents, friends, home life, etc.), then that committee is going to look beyond your numbers for other reasons to admit you. People who take the Bush position on this issue want to believe -- and they want you and me to believe -- that we're all inviolate individuals, that we, alone, are responsible for our actions and our fate in life, and that all other factors are irrelevant. This fantasy makes them feel better when they see homeless people on the street and experience a momentary pang of conscience that asks, "Why am I so wealthy while he is so poor?" If they can answer with "Because I'm just a better person than he is," then they can keep walking and feel no guilt. This myth of the individual is much simpler than trying to account for all the factors and people who have helped us get where we are (good or bad) in life. People against affirmative action want life to be clean and simple (like Rupert who comments on your blog that he "just want[s] a simple answer"). Too bad life isn't simple, as your own experience so clearly shows. The bright side might just be that you learned a lot more from being rejected at U of M (and from the course your life took from that point) than you might have learned had you been admitted. I hope so.

Posted January 18, 2003 10:10 AM | general politics

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