End of Affirmative Action as We Know It
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, the Supreme Court once again took up the controversial issue of affirmative action, as it heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin regarding the university’s admissions procedures. Much has been written about the case. Writing in The Daily Beast, UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler argues that former president Bush’s conservative appointees have changed the make-up of the Court and that a decision to strike down affirmative action plans will hurt minority applicants and endanger campus diversity.
In The Huffington Post, New York Law School Dean Deborah N. Archer contends, “Race-conscious admissions programs, like the one used by UT Austin, are designed to counter … systemic racism and create a vital pipeline to educational and professional opportunities for minority students.” Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, in the Wall Street Journal, proposes a new version of affirmative action “based not on race but on economic status.” And many, many briefs have been filed by interested parties (including 71 briefs for the university).
Yet despite all this outpouring of analysis (and there is plenty more), little attention has been given to the changes in academia that might affect affirmative action in the future. In particular, it is possible that MOOCs (massive open online courses) will greatly impact the need for affirmative action admissions.
The amount of print and digital space devoted to Fisher v. University of Texas has been miniscule compared to that given to coverage of MOOCs, especially the big three: Coursera, Udacity and edX. To some, the free online classes offered by top-tier universities spell the end of traditional academia. To others, the video-based courses will supplement — and/or bring down the cost of — the standard college experience.
And to some, observing that an overwhelming majority of students enrolled in MOOCs do not complete the course (and that cheating is widely reported and hard to counteract), talk of an education revolution is still premature. In a New York Times piece entitled, “The Trouble with Online Education,” University of Virginia English Professor Mark Edmundson writes, “A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some.
I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”
If MOOCs do take off as some academics, and many venture capitalists, predict, they could undermine the need for affirmative action. MOOCs can enroll an almost limitless number of students; traditional barriers to college entry will disappear.
In the New York Times, Kathy Enger writes, “Education is a great equalizer. Higher education gives opportunity to those who may be marginalized or excluded, simply because of nationality or economic status. Elite institutions, like Harvard and M.I.T., are in a key position to expand their programs and to offer online courses for credit to people who have traditionally been bound by race or place.” Because MOOCs can cater to students regardless of their identity (racial or socio-economic), they could obviate the traditional rationales for affirmative action, such as overcoming systemic discrimination and fostering campus diversity. Online courses — and the certificates granted upon their completion — could create a true academic meritocracy, in which personal background does not determine success in higher education.
Yet, things could go radically differently. If employers do not come to accept MOOC completion certificates (or even, down the road, degrees), we could see a bifurcation in American higher education between traditional and online universities. In this scenario, high-income students will continue to attend brick-and-mortar (or marble) colleges, while low-income and minority students, facing rising college costs, will be pipelined into online programs.
And if MOOCs begin to more closely resemble the online programs at for-profit colleges, which have burgeoned over the past decade, we can expect them to target low-income, traditionally marginalized students, who are often allured by the flexible schedules that online programs offer. In other words, MOOCs will become another “track” in an already dualistic system of higher education: two-year vs. four-year, for-profit vs. non-profit, public vs. private and now, online vs. traditional.
As the Court considers Fisher in the coming year, we should keep in mind that technology, not the law, might affect admissions programs. If MOOCs flourish, it’s possible that they will end the need for affirmative action as we know it, but it’s also possible that they could, by concentrating traditionally on disadvantaged students, create the conditions that necessitated affirmative action in the first place.
Jason Schulman is a Graduate student in the history department.