As an essay based on first hand experience in University of California-Berkeley engineering school admissions candidly explains (a conclusion that is backed up by statistical studies and book length treatments by others which the essay writer does not cite), affirmative action remains the norm in higher education admissions.
Grades and standardized test scores provide a base line. Extra curricular achievements and compelling personally essays provide the gravy. Academic superstars with few extracurricular activities and essays that are either incoherent or sound like they were crafted by a marketing firm instead of the student have to settle for second or third tier schools.
The plus factors are well known: African-American or Hispanic or otherwise disadvantaged minority ethnicity, excellence in sports, likelihood of paying large tuition bills with little financial aid, legacy status, and close association with great fame, fortune or power. Hailing from a location that helps the school expand the number of states or countries from which it has students in its entering class is also a plus.
The biggest minus factor these days is membership in a model minority, mostly Asian-American, worst yet when the applicant is likely to need financial aid and lives someplace where the institution already admits many students. Discrimination against Asian-Americans in college admissions is well documented and quite heavy handed.
The other losers in this process are poor, working class and even lower middle class whites whose parents share their socio-economic status. They are much less likely to be admitted than similarly situated minority students, despite the fact that low income students of all ethnicities who perform well academically are uncommon. In part, these students lose out because they are hard to distinguish from the legions of truly middle class whites or "temporarily poor" children of middle class or upper middle class whites (e.g. graduate students or medical residents or public defender lawyers or divorce but formerly affluent parents) who are undistinguished academically and in extracurricular activities and personal experiences, despite the fact that they faced no particularly epic personal or economic struggles in their lives as high school students and earlier in their lives. Some ethnicity neutral efforts rewarding first generation college students and students who are high in class rank despite mediocre test scores and an undemanding set of high school courses on their transcripts seek to counterbalance the system in their favor, but do so imperfectly.
I have mixed feelings about the affirmative action process.
On one hand, the perception that affirmative action prevents qualified applicants from obtaining admission to some college or university is mostly wrong. The nation still has plenty of opens admission institutions that will allow anyone with a high school diploma or a GED to start taking college classes despite mediocre grades and test scores. The incredibly high dropout rate of students with the bare minimum qualifications to go to college somewhere strongly suggests that the college admissions process is almost entirely brokering prestige and not access. Moreover options well beyond open admissions institutions are available for students with better than a 3.0 GPA and average or above standardized test scores who were considered college worthy by traditional standards. A high school graduate who earned a 3.45 GPA or better and scored in the 75th percentile in standardized test scores, who completed a college preparatory course of classes and requires no remedial work in mathematics or English, even if that student didn't take a single AP course and participated only in an undistinguished manner in at least one extracurricular activity, has still greater options available.
Even as a means of prestige storing, the downside of the affirmative action system for those who are hurt by it rapidly gets much more modest as you work your way down the U.S. News and World Reports rankings. The down side of being Asian-American at a Miami University of Ohio, or a Colorado State University is no where near as great as it is at UC-Berkeley or Yale or Harvard or Stanford or Amherst or the University of Chicago.
There are benefits to attending a higher prestige school, and in all but the most extreme cases, those benefits clearly outweigh any disadvantages associated with going to school with peers who are clearly out of the affirmative action admitted student's league. But, those benefits are frequently overstated. Students at the most selective colleges and universities are high achievers, on average, when they graduate, mostly because they were high achievers when they applied, not because of value added by one school relative to a less prestigious one.
One the other hand, the example of the essayist, illustrates examples of a system that approaches one that allows almost unqualified applicants to be ranked almost on a par with students of exemplary academic ability is questionable. The system in Berkeley engineering school admission ranks applicants from 1 to 5 (with only those scoring 2.5 or better receiving further consideration) and admits just 12% of applicants (less than the 21% admitted to the university as undergraduates overall). He provided two examples:
One student got a "2" ranking:
[He had] a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.A combined score of 2300 is either the 98th or 99th percentile and would be in the top quarter of admitted students at every college in the United States except Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and the California Institute of Technology. A 3.95 GPA probably means that the student got just one B in his entirely high school career and the odds are good that the B was in a more demanding AP course.
Another student got a "2.5" ranking:
[He was] a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents.A combined score of 1800 on the SATs is approximately the 85th percentile. His GPA means that he got Bs more often than A.
The fact that two students so markedly different in academic achievement can be ranked so similarly in the admissions process, particularly when the better performing but weakly ranked student is Asian-American, part of a group hurt by affirmative action, and a Mexican-American student, part of a group helped by it.
An expressed preference for "unweighted GPA" (many schools give grades in AP courses one grade point more than the same grade in a non-AP course) at Berkeley also seems like overkill. While it may be fair to give a student who gets an A in the most demanding available course in a subject at his school which has no AP class offerings the benefit of the doubt, relative to a student who got an A in an AP course in the same subject (particularly if extracurricular performance or SAT scores indicate aptitude in that subject), a student who gets a B in an AP class probably does deserve some adjustment relative to a student who gets a B in a less demanding non-AP class in the same subject area. We should reward students for taking the risk of getting a B in a more challenging course rather than taking the easy route of a less challenging course in order to get a better grade.
Also, strong affirmative action seems more questionable in an engineering program where academic ability really is the overwhelmingly most important consideration, relative to many other college programs. Engineering students with weak academic backgrounds are set up to fail in a way that humanities and social science students are not.