The Myth of College Admissions Merit – The Atlantic

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Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases that could end America’s affirmative action experiment in higher education. Challenges to admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – both brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a coalition of anonymous students assembled by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum – argue that the institutions discriminate against Asian American students. , and that eliminating the use of race in admissions would solve the problem.

The lower courts rejected the SFFA’s arguments, relying on more than 40 years of precedent that the use of race in admissions is permitted in narrow circumstances. “Harvard has demonstrated that no feasible and available racially neutral alternative will enable it to achieve a diverse student body while maintaining its standards of academic excellence,” Justice Allison Burroughs wrote in her 2019 opinion. But the SFFA pushed on, and now the case is before a conservative Supreme Court that has shown a willingness to overturn well-established precedents.

In his new book, Is affirmative action right? The Myth of Fairness in College Admissions, Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist at Tufts University who has spent years examining race-conscious admissions, assesses the positions of those for and against affirmative action, and argues that we are asking the wrong questions about how students enter university. By exalting merit, warns Warikoo, Americans have developed a skewed perception of the process, a perception that leads to challenges such as the one before the Court.

I spoke with Warikoo about his book, the Supreme Court hearing, and how we can better understand admissions.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Adam Harris: You write: “When we recognize the various goals that universities attempt to achieve through college admissions, it becomes clear that admission is not a certification of individual merit or merit, and that it was never meant to be.” Can you develop this idea? Where do we have flaws in our understanding of college admissions?

Natasha Warikoo: In the past, it was like “We want to have a bar”. You had to have a demonstration that you could handle the work that we are going to give you. And part of that was exclusive. It was like “Can you pass the Latin test?” Well, most schools didn’t teach kids Latin, so it wasn’t fair, it was “you’re going to do Latin; do you know latin?

But now when we talk about super selective places – there are over 200 of them, so not just the Ivies, but not most colleges – they have so many different interests playing into who they admit. You have sports coaches trying to recruit their recruits; you have the development office giving a list and saying, “These people have done a lot for this university—make sure you take a good look at it”; there are humanities departments that want to make sure there are people who are interested in humanities, not just STEM; the orchestra bassoon may have graduated, and now the orchestra needs a bassoon. So there are all these different things going on, and the admissions office tries to accommodate all these different interests and needs.

But regular people treat admissions like, you know, they line people up from best to worst and take the best, and if one of them says they’re not coming, then they take the next person. Well, that’s not how it works. They respond to the needs and wants of the organization. But somehow we treat it like a prize – and whoever deserves it the most enters.

Harris: It plays into the larger idea in America around merit, and how we’ve oriented our society around merit. How do merit and the idea of ​​fairness combine to give us the wrong idea of ​​admissions systems?

Warikoo: In all of these international surveys, when you look at respondents’ beliefs about whether people should be rewarded for merit over other things, Americans are much more likely to say yes than people in most others. country. Many modern societies believe in these ideas of meritocracy, but the United States is particularly attached to them. We have this belief that some people are deserving and the tacit idea that some don’t. And there’s a sense of entitlement, like I did all these things; I deserve a place in these places.

But we should stop treating college admissions as if everyone is equal and the smartest, hardest-working, bravest person gets in. Instead of discussing how affirmative action plays out against our ideas of meritocracy, we should look at what colleges are actually trying to do.

Harris: Well, let’s talk about affirmative action. How has this been perceived since Judge Lewis Powell accepted the justification for diversity in the University of California Regents vs. Bakke case in 1978?

Warikoo: There’s a whole research industry growing after this decision to really try to dig into the impact of a diverse learning environment: what’s the impact of having a roommate of a different race, of going in a diverse university, to be in a class with students who are of a different race? And this research shows all these benefits: groups make better decisions; students have more intellectual engagement; they improve their racial attitudes. There are even results that show a positive impact on civic engagement across the board. A student may not even have a diverse set of friends, but if they are on a diverse campus, there seems to be some kind of impact.

So all of this research shows these positive effects, and this data has been used in later court cases defending affirmative action. But in public conversation, many people recognize that it is also a question of fairness.

Harris: In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the Court expects that in 25 years the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary. And that’s what a lot of opponents of affirmative action are saying now: it may have been justified in the past, but it’s no longer necessary – and if we need something, maybe we can- to be find a substitute. Are there proxies for race in admissions?

Warikoo: The legal requirement is that when using these suspect categories such as race in a policy, you must show that there is no other way of doing things instead. And it’s pretty clear that there’s no good replacement for the race. We can use class, and class is important. But I don’t see them as either-or. Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin considered the ZIP code a proxy, and it’s pretty clear that such an approach won’t impact the number of underrepresented minority students on campus. Because, you know, the overwhelming majority of people in the United States today are white. The majority of people who are poor in this country are white. So you’re not really going to be racially diverse looking at the class.

Colleges have tried different things, like the Texas “10% plan”. Research suggests that these other ideas are somewhat helpful, but the problem is that graduation rates can drop when you just use a percentage plan. And it’s not a substitute for race-based affirmative action.

We can look at data from states that have banned affirmative action to understand that they haven’t found a replacement. We see a decline in every state, year over year, in the number of underrepresented minorities when affirmative action is prohibited.

Harris: One of the guidelines of the book is the purpose of higher education. What can colleges do best to be more honest about their goals?

Warikoo: One is to be careful how they talk about admissions. And when you dig into their language, many schools say they’re looking to create a classroom and everyone makes a unique contribution. But they still publish acceptance rates. There are so many ways the language they use subscribes to this idea that they are a place of excellence. This is best class everyou are told when you are a freshman.

When you have these elite colleges where the student body comes from families that are more affluent than the average 18-year-old, it’s not just the best of the best. Your family’s resources play a role whether your parents went to college, whether you grew up in certain neighborhoods or attended certain schools. Two-thirds of American adults are unlicensed.

But I always come back to the question of What are we trying to do here? Our spending in the United States on higher education is regressive. The most elite colleges accept the most successful and well-resourced students. But who needs support the most? When you look at what community colleges do in terms of social mobility, they blow places like Harvard and Tufts out of the water. Colleges should think a lot more about the role they want to play in our society and how they should align admissions with those goals.

Harris: Towards the end of the book, where you talk about solutions, a couple of things really came out: the kind of anti-inclusive instinct that a lot of institutions have in terms of increasing enrollment where they don’t want to increase enrollment as this may frustrate graduates who value the selectivity of their institution. Or, if there was an admissions lottery, the families of top performers might be frustrated. And what I took away from that was: there’s really nothing that institutions can do that can make everyone happy, so maybe they should just do what’s right. just.

Warikoo: Yes. There are so many more amazing 18-year-olds in our country — deserving, hard-working, ambitious, smart, whatever superlative you want to use — than there is room for them at Harvard, UNC, at any given school.

But we gotta stop acting like you deserve it and you don’t deserve it. It’s not about who deserves it. And that’s why I’m talking about a lottery system, because it implies that you don’t deserve it any more than anyone else – you got lucky. It’s already luck: that your parents could afford to buy a house near a school that had a college counselor, or that you had a tutor who could help you with your essay, or that you are went to a school with a crew crew and you got recruited for the crew—all sorts of things. It’s luck. Why not call it that?

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