In a 6–2 decision on Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment banning the use of affirmative action in public university admissions. This disheartening ruling not only reflects a national disregard for the all-too-real issues surrounding race and ethnicity but fits into a broader picture of shrinking access to higher education in America. At a time when college costs are skyrocketing — a trend which Oberlin is helping to lead — this decision warrants a fundamental re-evaluation of the idea of equity. That re-evaluation must begin, among other places, here.
Like many of my peers, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past weeks considering (and vehemently opposing) the recent amendments to Oberlin’s financial aid policy, which disproportionately reduce aid awarded to students with high “demonstrated need” by deducting the price difference of lower-cost housing and dining from those students’ “cost of attendance.” Among the aspects of the new policy that I’ve found most troubling is the frequently-cited defense of the policy by those implementing it: that it will make financial aid distribution at Oberlin more “equitable.”
In a meeting with College financial administrators on Thursday, two other students and I attempted to gain a better understanding of this definition of equitability. To briefly paraphrase their arguments: Under the current policy, a student who receives need-based financial aid and chooses lower-cost dining and/or housing options is effectively reducing their “family contribution” toward college costs. By introducing a “downward adjustment” (in the words of the new policy) to this student’s financial aid package, the College is effectively sharing the burden of tuition in a more balanced manner — one that is fairer and more equitable to all students. In short, allowing lower-income students to contribute less money by selecting cheaper housing and dining options, while receiving unadjusted financial aid, is unjust because it allows these students to receive proportionally more aid than others with less demonstrated need. I responded by expressing my opinion that this is not inequitable; as a student with low financial need myself, I have no issue paying a greater family contribution than these students, especially if that difference in contribution determines their ability to afford Oberlin. Many others in my position, I mentioned, feel the same way. The administrators’ reaction was one of genuine surprise.
In essence, the meeting confirmed what I suspected; these administrators’ conception of equity is my conception of equal treatment, not equal opportunity. My conception of equity is best expressed by the timeless, simple graphic comparing equity to equality. The graphic shows two images, side by side, depicting two different versions of the same scene; three children, of different heights, are attempting to watch a baseball game over a tall fence. In the lefthand version of the scene, representing equality, the three children each stand on one crate, but the smallest child, despite the crate, is still too short to see over the fence. In the righthand version, the three crates are redistributed; the tallest child has no crate but can still see over the fence, the middle child stands on one crate and can still see, and the smallest child stands atop two crates and is now
able to see the game. This skewed distribution of resources, which affords equal opportunity to all three children, represents equity.
In a setting such as higher education, where access has historically been contingent on resources and white, male, upper-class privilege, true equity — equal opportunity, with eyes trained on the redress of historic injustices — is paramount. This is the basis for affirmative action in its most basic sense. Enabling race awareness does, indisputably, result in unequal treatment in the immediate present; however, this is simply irrelevant to the purpose of affirmative action policies. Affirmative action is equitable because it exists to address longer-term, structural inequalities that will not disappear without concerted action on the part of those in positions of privilege and access. In the words of dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
I do not doubt that Oberlin College, as an institution, shares this view of affirmative action. President Marvin Krislov’s work defending this approach on behalf of the University of Michigan is well-documented. I am, however, deeply concerned that College administrators evidently do not apply the same standard of equity to Oberlin’s financial aid policies. Without doing so, Oberlin’s commitment to admitting historically underprivileged students is meaningless, as it is not matched by an equal commitment to these students’ continued attendance and graduation.
My view of equity is not limited to the kinds of people (like myself) whom a nonObie might brand radicals, socialists or anti-capitalists. It’s the simple view that lies at the heart of mainstream liberal politics as defined by the Democratic party in the form of a progressive tax rate. Those who have the resources, this ideology suggests, should contribute proportionally more to the greater good of society; those who have less cannot reasonably be expected to make the same contribution. To quote First Lady Michelle Obama: “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
While Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision is astoundingly backward, I admit I was only mildly surprised; the Court’s conservative membership is a well-known legacy of recent Republican presidencies. Equally well-known in the world of small liberal arts colleges, however, is Oberlin’s commitment to providing students with the tools necessary to fight for social justice. A financial aid policy that overlooks historic injustice in the same manner that the Supreme Court did on Tuesday has no place at this institution.