Don't Take the Bait

August, 2017

Washington -- It's no surprise that the president is once again attempting to divide the country through a wedge issue. It's what he does. This time his wedge issue is affirmative action in college admissions, through which he hopes to stoke resentment among people of different ethnicities for his own narrow political ends.

No one should take the bait. Instead, cooler heads should offer what is long overdue in any case, college admissions that are based on reducing economic and geographic inequality, regardless of race and ethnicity, and through admissions that take into account students who could benefit from a value-added approach to education. Such counsel is wisely offered in a recent Washington Monthly article.

Sometimes called class-based affirmative action (and identified with its indefatigable proponent Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation), this non-race-based approach to college admissions has been tested successfully so as to result in increased racial and ethnic diversity, along with economic and geographic diversity as well, much desirable in their own right. Done correctly, this approach can work even better than race-based affirmative action in providing educational opportunity to minority populations.

So why haven't colleges already moved on and why do some still cling to a race-based approach that pits group against group, black against white against Asian against Hispanic? One answer is money. If you look at the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action, they are often those with comparatively less financial need.* Some colleges (and their Washington based associations) like to talk a good game on diversity as long as it comes cheap. They have filed briefs with courts to uphold the race-based approach, even though it has long been disfavored by the U.S. Supreme Court as requiring strict judicial scrutiny.

The colleges and their associations that have sown this wind are now about to reap the whirlwind, if the president is successful in using race-based affirmative action as a wedge issue. Republican support for higher education is already at a remarkable low.

Some colleges have gone to great lengths to try to demonstrate why class-based diversity measures are inferior to race-based. I am not convinced. College admission these days is manipulated by custom-made algorithms so refined that if the public knew how they worked, there would be a revolt. Colleges can make class-based affirmative action succeed if they want to. Not only can they make it succeed, in doing so they may discover ways to serve the country better by concentrating on developing students who will go on to serve communities that pay taxes for higher education and need its products, especially minority communities.**

Those who do not want to see race-based affirmative action tear the country apart could counter the president's move with one of their own. Those in Congress on the committees of jurisdiction could prepare and introduce legislation to direct the U.S. Department of Education to help colleges adopt class-based and similar affirmative action programs. This could be done by evaluating successful class-based efforts and by offering grants to colleges that want to use methods beyond skin color to achieve diversity. Although the lead can be taken by Democrats, Republicans should be welcomed as co-sponsors.

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*When I was a researcher for the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, I looked at race by income by student loan debt over time. In general, affirmative action by race did not help low-income blacks, who were disadvantaged disproportionately by colleges' financial aid packaging.

**I have every confidence, based on years of watching the development of the enrollment management industry, that colleges can create variables for their admissions algorithms that look at where students come from and where they are likely to locate after college to engage in their professions – teaching, medicine, law, public administration, engineering, and the like. This is why geography and value-added education, as well as economic class, are desirable factors to consider in college admissions.





The "Better Deal" Could be Better

August, 2017

Washington -- Two weeks after I wrote a post suggesting the Democratic Party should offer the country a "Decent Deal," its leaders rolled out a "Better Deal." The Better Deal, unfortunately, still needs work.

It's not all bad. In explaining the Better Deal, Senator Charles Schumer warned against defining its economic proposals in ideological terms. This is crucial; Democrats don't need internal ideological fights when the country is in mortal danger.* In her pitch, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even mentioned agriculture and the struggles of farmers. Imagine that! What's next, an actual Democratic initiative to address rural America? Good for her.

But the Democrats' Better Deal, in focusing on economic issues, sidesteps those who (accurately, in my opinion) say that as far as winning future elections is concerned, "it's the culture, stupid." Democrats are not going to win back states where its brand, rightly or wrongly, has become cultural poison, even if its economic program makes all the sense in the world.

This is why a Decent Deal beats a Better Deal, because it introduces a cultural positive that is badly needed and will attract voters who are looking for decency in a time of cultural vulgarity and obscenity.

What else might Democrats offer to make their brand more acceptable again, especially to voters who went for Obama in 2008 only to go for Trump in 2016?

• Offer old-fashioned patriotism. Because the country as we know it is in danger of losing its institutions (even the rule of law itself) it's time for a little more flag-waving in support of the institutions that made America the country it is. Hand out those pocket-sized Constitutions. Become the party of patriotism, as contrasted with nationalism.

• Offer more veterans as candidates. Millions of veterans are Democrats. Recruit them to run for office. Did they risk their lives only to see their country turn its back on the principles veterans fought to uphold? Democracy, human rights, the four freedoms anyone?

• Offer a culture of charity and service. Democrats need to emphasize how important they consider citizens' charitable works and community service, and to structure their programs and messages accordingly. Too often Democrats are mis-characterized as believing only in big federal programs, driving away people who believe in and even define themselves in terms of their charity and service work. Democrats could turn around many voters who are eager to associate with a party that honors and promotes charity, service, and decency.

• Offer a refuge from single-issue voting appeals. Many voters may be ready in coming elections to resist appeals from interest groups that focus on a single issue, like guns or abortion. If they have lost their health insurance and are standing in line for hours to see a volunteer doctor in a make-shift tent, as in a third-world country, they may not be taking much consolation that they are packing heat during the wait. Democrats should actively welcome support from voters who may not want to change their positions on certain issues but who are ready to put all issues into perspective. They may be ready to vote for a party that does not beat them up with single-issue, cultural litmus tests.

• Offer a culture of respect for working families who live by the sweat of their brows. Historically, these are the people who made the Democratic party the party of the people. It's time to re-embrace that culture.

So far, the Democrats' Better Deal suggests a few good ideas on the economy, but does not offer much by way of making the party more attractive culturally to voters who have abandoned it. That needs to change.

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* V.O. Key taught us, or at least some of us, that successful political parties organize pragmatically in America to win elections; they are not interest groups that focus on certain issues or ideological organizations operating in parliamentary government systems.