JENKINS: 'Equity' sounds good, but it's actually a bad thing

Equity, which is not the same as equality, is an unjust, Marxist-inspired, redistributionist concept that is antithetical to excellence and doesn't even address the real problem.

Rob Jenkins is a Higher Education Fellow with Campus Reform and a tenured associate professor of English at Georgia State University - Perimeter College. In a career spanning more than three decades at five different institutions, he has served as a head men’s basketball coach, an athletic director, a department chair, and an academic dean, as well as a faculty member.

The push for “equity” has become the most powerful force on college campuses today, dictating everything from admissions decisions to financial aid. 

Case in point: Illinois’ new education law requires the state’s universities “to develop and implement an equity plan and practices that include methods and strategies to increase the access, retention, completion, and student loan repayment rates of minorities, rural students, adult students, women, and individuals with disabilities who are traditionally underrepresented.” 

Such seemingly innocuous boilerplate language obscures the toxic effects of the equity movement on the educational enterprise, individual students, and their families.  

Equity-which is not the same as equality-is an unjust, Marxist-inspired, redistributionist concept that is antithetical to excellence and doesn’t even address the real problem. 

Most people seem to think “equity” and “equality” are interchangeable terms since the two words sound vaguely alike. 

They’re not. In the ways that matter most, the terms couldn’t be more different.  

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Americans cherish fundamental equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” That we have not always lived up to this ideal makes it neither less true nor less inspiring. 

Specifically, we believe in equality before God—hence those “unalienable rights”—and before the law, as laid out in the Constitution. We also strive to provide equal opportunities for people to pursue happiness through education, economic liberty, and freedom from onerous government interference.  

“Equity,” on the other hand, refers to what the late philosopher Mortimer Adler called “equality of conditions,” or what some might term “equality of outcome.” 

Equity does not just mean that people have the same opportunities. It means that people all achieve the same results, in terms of educational attainment, employment, income, etc. 

That presents a problem for our higher education system, which has for centuries been based primarily on merit: Those who are smarter, more talented, and more diligent than their peers generally achieve greater success.  

The merit system is not absolute, nor is it perfect. It is susceptible to ordinary human foibles, such as bias, favoritism, and dishonesty. However, it has worked remarkably well over the years, producing some of the best minds the world has ever known. In general, it has succeeded in promoting excellence.  

Equity, however, turns that notion on its head, rewarding people based not on achievement but on membership in ‘underrepresented groups.’ 

Excellence is therefore not a primary consideration; indeed, it is not a consideration at all. It no longer matters what people do; it just matters who they are. 

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Thus, equity is fundamentally unjust. 

The viral cartoon of three boys standing on soap boxes watching a baseball game over a fence illustrates the difference between equity and equality. 

The tallest boy doesn’t need a soapbox; he could see the game just fine without it. The middle-sized boy can see, but only with the help of his soapbox. And the littlest boy still can’t see over the fence, even with the soapbox. 

That, says the cartoonist, is equality: Each boy has one box of equal height. 

In the second frame, which is supposed to depict equity, the tallest boy no longer has a box while the littlest has two. Now everyone can see the game! Isn’t equity grand?  

What the original cartoon leaves out is that someone—the government—must take the box from the tallest boy and give it to the smallest one. 

The boxes, in other words, must be redistributed according to the boys’ needs. 

It becomes clear, then, that “equity” is a Marxist concept. 

The only way everyone can have the same amount of money or goods is to take from those who have more and give to those who have less—Marx’s vision in a nutshell.  

Now apply that same reasoning to something like student loans, as the Illinois law appears to do. 

Illinois is saying that students from “underrepresented” groups shouldn’t have to pay back their loans at the same rate as others if doing so would affect their ability to enroll or remain in college. 

Or maybe not pay them back at all; the language is somewhat vague. 

In any case, what it means, practically speaking, is that working-class urban White families in Illinois will now be paying taxes to support programs their own children might not even be able to access. 

Ultimately, those trying to create more opportunities for “underrepresented” college students through “equity” programs are approaching the problem from the wrong direction. 

They’re taking a top-down approach to a problem that begins for many students in kindergarten.  

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What the campus equity gurus are saying is, ‘We don’t care if students are unprepared for college. Equity demands that we give them a seat in our classrooms, for free if necessary, and then manipulate outcomes so they appear to succeed.’ 

That is a recipe for failure—both the students’ and the institutions’. 

Conversely, emphasis on equality of opportunity in K-12 education would eliminate the need for colleges to implement equity programs. 

Plenty of “underrepresented” students will still qualify for admission and even for merit-based aid.  

The best mechanism for accomplishing that goal—for improving students’ K-12 performance across the board—is school choice.

Florida is a great example of the success of school choice programs. There, a large-scale study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students enrolled in the state’s school choice program--especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds--showed significant gains on standardized tests and were more likely than their peers to attend and graduate from college. 

The epic failure of our public schools in many parts of the country means equality of opportunity is often lacking in those areas. Some kids simply don’t have access to the high-quality education others take for granted. 

The solution is not “equity programs,” which mandate a forced, top-down, faux “equality.” 

Rather, the answer is to provide those same opportunities to everyone, beginning as early as possible. That’s true equality, not to mention. It’s also the American way. 

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.