Av­er­age grades in hard classes are bet­ter than A’s in easy ones. Schools don’t need af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion to make di­verse classes.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - va­lerie.strauss@wash­post.com Va­lerie Strauss cov­ers ed­u­ca­tion for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

“In most cases, tak­ing an AP class and get­ting a B is a bet­ter choice than get­ting an A in a reg­u­lar one,” ac­cord­ing to the Prince­ton Re­view. Ka­plan, a test-prep busi­ness, agrees. What’s more, schools of­ten weight dif­fi­cult classes more heav­ily when tab­u­lat­ing GPAs, so th­ese tips seem to make sense.

Not so fast. Yes, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties like to see stu­dents take chal­leng­ing cour­ses in high school. But in my ex­pe­ri­ence cov­er­ing ed­u­ca­tion, selec­tive schools usu­ally don’t like grades be­low a B, and strug­gling in more than one tough class is not seen as a plus. So un­less stu­dents can keep their grades in higher-level cour­ses at or over the B range, it prob­a­bly makes more sense to take reg­u­lar classes.

Even though grade point av­er­ages are of­ten boosted by chal­leng­ing classes, which award more points than the typ­i­cal 4.0 A, col­leges can tell when a GPA is bloated, ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers say. As Peter­son’s, an ad­mis­sions and test-prep agency, ex­plains, high schools use dis­tinct grad­ing sys­tems and of­fer cour­ses that have the same name but vary­ing de­grees of dif­fi­culty. And, as Peter­son’s notes, many col­leges have their own sys­tems for re­cal­cu­lat­ing GPAs.

“‘Di­ver­sity’ isn’t why col­leges need af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion,” Bloomberg View’s Noah Feld­man de­clared in 2012. The fact that some uni­ver­si­ties, like Texas A&M, have in­creased di­ver­sity while ban­ning af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion might sug­gest that schools don’t need such pro­grams to keep their cam­puses di­verse. And like other op­po­nents of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has ar­gued that such poli­cies are un­fairly dis­crim­i­na­tory and don’t help mi­nor­ity stu­dents, writ­ing with David Sacks in Stan­ford’s alumni jour­nal that “if ‘di­ver­sity’ were re­ally the goal” of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion pro­grams, “then pref­er­ences would be given on the ba­sis of un­usual char­ac­ter­is­tics, not on the ba­sis of race.”

But af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion pro­grams do ap­pear to in­crease di­ver­sity at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Though col­leges are of­ten cagey about re­leas­ing ex­act num­bers on the sub­ject, a look at what hap­pens when such pro­grams dis­ap­pear tells a wor­ry­ing story. When af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion pro­grams are banned, black and His­panic en­roll­ment tends to lag. As Ha­ley Mun­guia pointed out in 2015 at FiveThir­tyEight, in states where af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is banned, far fewer uni­ver­si­ties have shares of black and His­panic stu­dents equal to those in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, while states with af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion have far bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion in black and His­panic en­roll­ment. At the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, in par­tic­u­lar, black en­roll­ment fell 30 per­cent in the seven years after af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion was banned.

To­day, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion has lost much ju­di­cial sup­port, and pub­lic opin­ion polls on th­ese pro­grams show mixed re­sults. The Supreme Court per­mits race-con­scious ad­mis­sions poli­cies at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties only to pur­sue “di­ver­sity” in stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, not to com­pen­sate African Amer­i­cans for cen­turies of racially dis­crim­i­na­tory pub­lic pol­icy. Mean­while, most mi­nor­ity groups re­main un­der­rep­re­sented on col­lege and uni­ver­sity cam­puses, even though most stu­dents en­rolled at the coun­try’s K-12 pub­lic schools are mi­nori­ties.

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