Here is What The Media Is Still Getting Wrong When Reporting on Affirmative Action

Monday, July 31st, 2023
Here is What The Media Is Still Getting Wrong When Reporting on Affirmative Action

Author: Adam Caller, Tutors International

A Monumental Change in the U.S. Educational Landscape

A landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has recently transformed the college admissions landscape. In an act that echoed across universities, the diversity-conscious admission programmes of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina were deemed a contravention of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This ruling signifies a profound shift in policy, marking the end of race consideration in admissions decisions for both public and private colleges.

In the aftermath of this pivotal decision, one aspect seems conspicuously neglected: the media's ongoing misrepresentation of affirmative action. More often than not, the headlines are disproportionately filled with the gross number of admissions from a particular subset of backgrounds instead of shedding light on the ratio of applicants from various backgrounds and their respective success rates in the volume of enrollments.

This issue obscures an accurate reading of the extent of the issue, for better or worse.

Statistical Missteps: Lessons from the Red Car Phenomenon and the Simpson Paradox

A conversation I once had with a friend illustrates the problem of reporting only absolute numbers. My friend counselled against buying a red car, citing their overrepresentation in traffic accidents. My friend failed to account for the fact that, at that time, red cars were the most popular colour of vehicle on the road. This instance of statistical blindness - the failure to measure the correct data points - is a common pitfall in media reporting on affirmative action.

A more egregious error, however, is evidenced in the media's susceptibility to the Simpson Paradox. This statistical phenomenon occurs when a trend observed within different groups reverses when combined. The lack of accounting for this paradox paints the media as either knowingly obfuscating the truth by oversimplifying data or, equally concerning, revealing their lack of data literacy.

This issue is perhaps best understood by looking at the history of data fallacies in the enrollment process by looking at the UC Berkeley gender bias case of 1973.

In this case, the university was accused of gender bias because women's overall acceptance rate was lower than men's. However, when examined department by department, it appeared that no department was significantly biased against women. Most departments had a slightly higher acceptance rate for women than for men. The paradox was due to women applying in more significant numbers to competitive departments with low admission rates. In contrast, men tended to apply to less competitive departments with high admission rates.

Due to the manner in which affirmative action statistics are frequently reported, it is not possible to assess first-hand whether this is the case in the scenarios presented, particularly when looking at racial diversity. 

Increase the Diversity in the Applicant Pool

Media advocates for higher diversity in university placement should encourage an increase in the volume of applicants from the background they perceive to be underrepresented. I would suggest this may serve to remedy the inbound application issue, and - unlike telling someone they may not be accepted due to prejudice by the institution - won’t self-fulfil as an offputting barrier to an application (after all, who would want to go to a school that they have been told is prejudiced against them).

Several impediments hinder individuals from applying to higher education institutions from non-typical alum backgrounds. These include the looming prospect of accruing debt amongst non-financially fluent families, a lack of awareness of available opportunities, and the apprehension of feeling culturally misaligned with the institution. 

Having worked in schools boasting grand architecture, I have witnessed such barriers firsthand. I recall an incident where I had to coax a family back into the application process after they self-selected out, overwhelmed by the institution's grandeur.

Articles such as the recent NPR Planet Money report cite the advantages given to the offspring of existing alums without adequately considering the parallels in socioeconomic conditions and simply the geographical proximity to the institution of alums and their offspring. These articles often fail to consider a simple parental preference, in that they know the institution, the power of referral, and things as simple as the influence of other adults in a child's life from their parent's circle of friends, who will likely be of the same social background as the parents. 

If every adult you know is a medical professional who studied at UC Berkeley, you will likely aspire to a career as a medical professional who studied at UC Berkeley. 

The Flaws Within Affirmative Action

While I would like this article to remain predominantly about media representation, affirmative action programmes harbour inherent flaws. A prime example is the common practice of gauging a family's financial standing based on the tax they pay. This is a flawed measure as it overlooks that some wealthiest families, often through sophisticated accounting techniques, pay a fraction of the tax one would expect. This inconsistency is among many that obscure the data on the effectiveness of affirmative action.

Steer Towards Better Representation

In summary, the media's portrayal of affirmative action is marked by distortions, largely owing to the misplaced focus on the number of admissions rather than the proportional representation. Many factors influence the diversity of the applicant pool, including the intimidation and alienation felt by potential applicants from non-typical backgrounds. Additionally, affirmative action frameworks have shortcomings and call for substantial improvements.

As we grapple with these issues, the tale of the red cars provides a timely reminder. Is it not more informative to know the proportion of red cars in accidents rather than merely the number of red cars in accidents? By shifting our focus to getting a broader array of 'cars' on the road, we can strive for a truly equitable race.


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