Ten Miles Square


March 29, 2013 11:00 AM Affirmative Action in the Trenches

By Elias Vlanton

“B” was all he texted me, but I knew Tramon was disappointed. His first report card at Dartmouth College was not straight A’s, matching his high school record. He was already analyzing that single B, he assured me when we talked later, and thinking about where he needed to improve. A few days later Morganne, my future veterinarian and a Cornell University freshman, was similarly disappointed with her B’s; she, too, had only known A’s in high school. My steady, quiet one, Arnetta, a pre-med freshman at the highly-competitive Bryn Mawr College , was pleased with her 3.2 average. So was I. That this was shaping up to be a fine first semester was confirmed when Anngie, knowing that I was waiting, reported hours after grades were released that she had earned two A’s and two B’s at Middlebury College , the fiercely competitive Little Ivy . All received the same heartfelt piece of advice: They were doing extremely well, they were outperforming many of their freshman peers, and doing so at some of the most challenging schools in the country. To me, their A’s and B’s were just, in language they could understand, “awesome.”

Yes, I am very proud. Tramon, Morganne, Arnetta, and Anngie were all students of mine in Advanced Placement classes at Maryland’s Bladensburg High School . Bladensburg is neither a private school, nor a “we skim the cream of the crop” magnet public school. It is in one of Washington, DCs poorest suburbs, where family income ranks in the bottom quarter of the state, and a school where less than ten percent of any graduating class makes it through college.

This semester, while Morganne proudly posts videos of her next dissection and Anngie writes another long essay in French, the Supreme Court, in deciding Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, will determine whether my students deserve to attend the colleges where they are being so successful. In addition to attending a low-performing high school, my kids are all African American and Latino. They were accepted into their elite colleges as part of those schools’ commitment to the mission of promoting diversity in higher education, the very diversity that affirmative action attempts to encourage—and that Fisher seeks to declare unconstitutional.

The anti-affirmative action pitch is succinctly expressed by Chief Justice Roberts: The way to stop discrimination is to stop discriminating. Admitting “unqualified” minority students to schools when they don’t meet the objective admissions requirements, the argument continues, only stigmatizes them and encourages academic failure.

But from where I sit, the talk of minority preferences misses the main point. The discrimination that I see is the regular advantage that wealthier students enjoy in the admissions process. The admissions criteria we accept as neutral—SAT scores, rigor of high school courses, extra-curricular activities, GPAs—are far from benign. They stack the admissions process against the economically disadvantaged.

I see an admissions playing field that is not at all level for my students. While wealthier parents improve their children’s SAT scores by paying thousands of dollars to enroll them in summer SAT prep courses or to hire one-on-one test prep tutors, these options are out of reach for my students. Their main preparation comes, if scheduling permits, from the school’s SAT class. Competently taught, the class is partially a dumping ground for students who need to be put somewhere. The result is more than 40 students per class, many of whom neither pay attention nor want to ever take the test. For students who show promise, the teacher offers an SAT prep book for home study—one the teacher has bought at his own expense.

Students in affluent neighborhoods can select from more than a dozen Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses—all application-enhancing courses heavily favored by admissions counselors. But at schools like mine, where a large percentage of the student body has to repeat classes they have failed, the elective offerings shrink. A high-achiever at Bladensburg reaches senior year with few courses to take. Brown University wanted to know why one of my outstanding students this year had no math class in her senior schedule. The student had to explain that while the school offered pre-calculus, there was only one section, and it conflicted with her AP Chemistry class, also offered in only one section. Since grade point averages are partly a function of course difficulty (most schools boost the value of AP and IB courses), a limited selection of advanced courses undermines the opportunity of getting a higher GPA.

Many of my college-bound kids have no time for resume building. They focus on a more prosaic goal: family survival. One student cleans office buildings at night to help his diabled mother pay rent while another works weekends to help prevent her home from going into foreclosure. A third student shares her home with an abused, homeless woman taken in by her parents. Am I to suggest they spend a few days with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the poor, or volunteering at the local women’s shelter to burnish their resumes so they can compete with wealthier college applicants?

Despite efforts to ease the burden of applying to competitive colleges, admissions is still a process dominated by money and its lack. College visits are largely out of reach for my students, yet visits and on campus interviews increase a student’s chances. When I took a day off from work last year to take Tramon to visit Haverford College , the campus information session stressed the importance of a personal interview. Tramon’s first question afterwards was: “What about the kids who don’t know that it is important and can’t afford to get here?” While the College Board offers our school a limited number of fee waivers for SAT testing and colleges often waive application fees with these vouchers, the system discriminates in more subtle ways. There are no waivers for the cost of sending AP scores ($15 per school) . And to apply for financial aid requires completion of the College Board’s CSS Profile, which costs $16 per school. My students have to ask their families to put aside very scarce family resources just to see if they are eligible for financial aid!

My four freshmen—my odds-beaters—had SAT scores hundreds of points below the average of the students admitted to their colleges. They took far fewer AP courses, and participated in fewer extra-curricular activities (since our school offers few activities other than sports). What set them apart was their class rank: they were all in the top two percent of the senior class, a function of their love of learning, their desire to do well, and their hard work to rise to the top. Despite the claim that, on the merits of their applications, they were “unqualified” for admission to the schools where they are getting As and Bs, all will graduate with honors from schools that are among the best in the country—joining my former students who graduated from Bowdoin College, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Stanford University .

So Chief Justice Roberts, in the end, we agree: Discrimination is discriminatory. That is why colleges must be allowed to consider the social and economic circumstances of my students when making admissions decisions—as Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Middlebury have done. My kids don’t want a leg up; but neither do they deserve a kick in the chest.

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Elias Vlanton is a veteran teacher at Bladensburg High School in Maryland. In 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from St. Mary’s College of Maryland for successfully assisting low-income students attend college.


  • Jim Bogden on March 29, 2013 1:33 AM:

    Thank you for a fresh reminder - and for putting fresh faces - on a classic argument that is as compelling as ever.

  • superdestroyer on March 29, 2013 7:22 AM:

    The question is why to progressives believe that blacks should be able to jump from inner city school to Ivy League in one generation. Why not let those highly motivated, willing to learn minorities attend state flag ship universities where they then use to help their own children live in good neighborhoods with AP Class and SAT pep classes.

    In other words, why should white parents have to work so hard to ensure that there are enough other whites between their children's achievement and the top black to make sure that some other white pays the price for affirmative action.

  • Elias Vlanton on March 29, 2013 8:32 AM:

    superdestroyer, I don't completely understand your argument, but I don't find your "let them go to state schools" position convincing. That assumes that the college admissions process is somehow impartial and objective when, as the article shows, it is not.

    The racial basis of current affirmative action can be removed, for all I care, but I see no reason why poorer, hard-working students should be at a disadvantage in attending college. Today they are.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 29, 2013 8:54 AM:

    Seconding Jim Bogden above. Thank you, Mr. Vlanton, for your contribution to this discussion.

    On my commute on the Red Line this morning I was listening to "Black Boy Fly" (Kendrick Lamar). And every time I listen to that song, I always get a chilling reminder that people like him, like me, and like Mr. Vlanton's freshmen, are the exceptions to a very ugly rule. A rule that dictates that if your poor, black, or brown, you shouldn't aspire to be a little bit more.

    And it really is heartbreaking to know that because of their dire circumstances they really can't afford to aspire to more. Time spent volunteering is time not spent earning a paycheck. A summer at pre-college program is a summer not working. $16 spent on a test is $16 that can't be spent on food, gas or other expenses of living. These kids' immediate needs are their stumbling blocks/stepping stones. These kids have to choose to do the right thing. The best choices and opportunities aren't just sitting there waiting to be had. Nobody accidentally stumbles on success in these places. Not only do they have to want it, they have to go really far out of their way to get it. (And then prove to trolls after the fact that, yes, they actually did work for it.)

    Not to mention that these communities are plagued not only by low expectations of the most malicious flavor but also temptations that will leave them deeper in poverty (teenage parenthood), in jail (dope dealing), or dead (gang banging).

    So, hats off to Mr. Vlanton's students and to Mr. Vlanton.

  • Rich on March 29, 2013 9:24 AM:

    Colleges practice many kinds of affirmative action: legacies, kids whoa aren't from the normal feeder schools, donors kids: the vast majority of these are white. If the people want a real meritocracy, then these have to go, as well, and court fights would be come very interesting.

  • SteveJ on March 29, 2013 7:51 PM:

    When I was applying to colleges and graduate school, many of the application forms had no interest in what summer jobs I had worked in, but had lots of questions about internships, travel, semesters abroad and the like. I only recall one that specifically asked about work history (there may have been more).

    Anyway, the class bias was evident. Just like a friend who encountered a question about the D'oyly Carte opera company on the medical college admission test (MCAT). As much as I like Gilbert & Sullivan, they are basically an upper class silly trifle that no working class kid will have experienced. Gotta make sure those upper class kids get accepted!

  • Vigilarus on April 02, 2013 3:19 PM:

    Race-based quotas are not, as this article implies, a fair proxy for socio-economic status. A privately-schooled mixed race kid with professional parents from the Upper East Side of Manhattan who checks the magic box for minority status will get a 200 to 400 point advantage in required SAT scores (and if Asian, an extra 100 point impediment). Meanwhile, a white kid from a working-class single parent home in a southern trailer park going to a poorly funded rural school with few opportunities will be deemed to be benefiting from supposed 'white privilege', and between the liberal elitist looking down on working-class whites and the cynical administrators filling out their 'minority numbers', as well as the preppy sport athletes and alumni children, they won't have much of a chance.

    We need to end alumni and athlete preferences and set affirmative action right by basing it on class instead of race. Oxford and Cambridge have no boxes to check for special admissions status- we can get there too.

  • MKD on April 02, 2013 11:04 PM:


    Your argument is extremely on point. The issue with this article is not that it supports affirmative action, but that it equates low socio-economic class with race. While, to a certain extent, lower socio-economic classes are statistically representative of minorities, this is a changing fact with a now archaic basis. If we intend to end racial discrimination in the United States, it's time that we do it across the board--and this means favoring no race over another.

    Class and race are NOT indubitably related.

    Race is no longer a defining factor in the number and quality of opportunities offered to an individual. A further problem with racial quotas is that they are often not filled by students like those in this article, but more economically priviledged children, often of African immigrants (who represent one of the best educated racial populations in the States). As this article confirms, disadvantages in the college application process are clearly a result of a lack of economic resources. We should thus be establishing class quotas, not racial quotas.