cross-posted from Dagblog
Public debates over affirmative action in college admissions, such as all the hubbub about Fisher v. Texas (in which a not-so-qualified white student named Abigail Fisher sued before the Supreme Court to end affirmative action at the University of Texas), usually run into basic confusion about how college admission works in the first place. Opponents of affirmative action often call, loudly, for American colleges to "go back" to an admissions system that has never existed.
During oral arguments for Fisher v. Texas last fall, a commenter on a news post wrote: "Here's an idea. Why don't we just let in the students with the best grades and test scores?" The commenter intended this as irony, because he assumed that was the normal and natural way to manage selective college admissions. But the system he thinks of as "normal" has never been used in this country, and it will not be used if affirmative action is abolished.
(The ugly irony, of course, is that plaintiffs like Abigail Fisher who complain about "reverse racism" would lose out under a strict academic meritocracy, since their actual academic credentials would not have gotten them into the schools
they're suing. Despite all the fantasies about obviously-qualified white students being passed over for hopelessly-unqualified black students, somehow anti-affirmative-action groups can only find weak borderline applicants when it's time to sue. And seriously, America's B- white students do not need everything to be about grades and scores.)
So let's review a few basic facts:
1. College Admissions Has Never Been Strictly About Academics
This is the hardest one for people to accept. But it is absolutely true. Competitive college admissions in the United States has never been about scholarly qualifications alone. There are countries, like France, where the competition for places at top schools is strictly academic. This country has never been one of them.
There are American colleges that don't have the luxury of being selective, and some of those schools do primarily rely on grades and test scores and sometimes use numerical cut-offs. But those are schools that are worried about finding enough students. They are basically taking every qualified person who applies. These schools use grades and scores to screen out applicants who seem likely to flunk. But these schools are irrelevant to the affirmative-action discussion, because students do not compete with one another to get in. You can't claim that you lost your place to a minority, or a legacy, or a football recruit, because there aren't a limited number of places. Letting one student in doesn't mean turning another student away.
(I want to be clear, by the way, that a college that isn't selective isn't necessarily bad, or that schools that are harder to get into are better. Some good schools have trouble filling their classes, and some selective schools are overrated. I'm just talking about the practical side of admissions.)
On the other hand, Harvard, which is not necessarily the best school in America but has long been the most selective, had for many decades (and may still have) a policy that capped the number of undergrads who got in on nothing but academics to ten percent of the incoming class. Ask your friends what percentage of Harvard kids they think got in just on their grades. Ten percent won't come up often.
The other ninety percent have good-enough grades, with the definition of "good enough" changing over time and depending on the strength of the applicant's other qualifications. They all have to be in the pool of students who probably won't flunk out, but the pool of applicants who could eventually graduate if they were let in is much, much larger than the number of students Harvard can or will actually take.
That other ninety percent are selected for things like athletic ability, family connections to the school, signs of "leadership," artistic or other extracurricular talents, regional origin (because the school wants "geographic diversity," meaning more kids from Idaho), and history of charity work. Some of the spots in the ninety percent have always been set aside for students from poor backgrounds. Fifty years ago, racial diversity got added to the list of possible qualifications.
Other selective schools work on basically the same model, with the specific percentages varying a little. (Some schools give more weight to legacies, or a little less to athletes, or set aside 15% instead of 10% for academic stars, but the general pattern holds.) Harvard's a convenient example because its fame means there has been more written and published about its practices, but all of Harvard's peers and rivals, and all of the schools struggling to get closer to that exclusive tier, operate in much the same way.
But these colleges operated this way for decades before affirmative action. Giving some consideration to minority applicants didn't change the fundamental procedure, and banning such consideration wouldn't either.
2. Selective Admissions Are Driven by the Schools' Self-Interest
Why do colleges give these preferences to athletes, legacies, class presidents, bassoon players, blood drive organizers, and kids from Wyoming or West Virginia? Because they believe that doing so is good for the school.
Selective colleges don't favor athletes in the admissions process just because they're trying to make money off football or basketball. Schools with no big-revenue sports programs still give athletes preference, and they give preference to athletes in non-revenue sports like track and lacrosse. The Harvard-Yale game isn't going to bring in any TV dollars, but both of those schools recruit football players. The exclusive private colleges don't admit athletes to make money off sports. They're actually willing to lose money on sports in order to recruit athletes.
Why would schools do this? Because they believe (or enough people within the institution believe), that athletic standouts are likely to excel in other fields after graduation. They view a B+ or A- student who is showing leadership, discipline, and drive on the playing field as more likely to succeed in life than another student with similar grades. So they look for rowers, fencers, and swimmers. And if you think it sounds crazy to look for the next Mark Zuckerberg on a high school fencing team, remember that the last Mark Zuckerberg was captain of his high school fencing team.
A college that's able to choose the students it accepts does its best to choose a group that will become successful alumni in as many different fields as possible. The graduates' success raises the school's reputation and strengthens its core pool of donors. So the best strategy is to choose students with a wide range of different strengths and advantages. You want brains. You want motivation and leadership. You want some socially adroit students who will go on to success in business or politics, so you take kids who were president of three different clubs in high school. You want a certain number of students who were born to money and privilege, because their money and privilege will make them influential later. You want students from all over the country because you want to have alumni all over the country. You want a few driven poor kids who will make good. You want a few artists, a few non-profit leaders, a few intellectuals. (Harvard's 10% rule suggests the percentage of academics and intellectuals they want to turn out.) This isn't so much "diversity" as diversification: admitted students are the schools' long-term investment portfolio, and like smart investors schools spread their bets around.
These are all value judgements, and they are inseparable from the institution's value system. The schools have long-standing ties to certain established elites; they have a long-standing commitment giving legs up to at least a few poor kids. But institutions' values only shape their sense of their own long-term interests. In the end, they make the admissions decisions that they believe will best serve the school itself.
Affirmative action programs are ultimately just another admissions bet, and many of them have paid off. Any country with distinct racial and ethnic groups will always produce a number of high-profile leaders drawn from those groups. Elite schools want those leaders to be their alumni. W.E.B. DuBois had a Harvard degree, but the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement generally had not been educated in the traditional elite schools. Whether the Ivy League's leaders welcomed the Civil Rights movement or feared it, none of them wanted to see a whole set of national leaders coming exclusively from Howard. They started making a point of admitting minorities, and eventually a Columbia/Harvard Law man was elected the first black president of the United States. Mission accomplished.
Elite colleges make sure to take kids from Utah or North Dakota because they want a chance to produce some of Utah and North Dakota's future leaders. They make sure to take some kids from the privileged classes because they want a chance to produce the privileged classes' future leaders. Now they also make sure to take some minority kids because they want a chance to produce some of those minority groups' future leaders. It isn't white guilt. It's time-honored strategy.
3. Academics Were Less Important to Colleges Before Affirmative Action
People talk about affirmative action as if it gutted the academic integrity of American colleges and lowered standards. But exactly the opposite is true for selective college admissions. Academic expectations for all applicants have been much higher in the affirmative action era than they had ever been before.
This is more coincidence than causation. Affirmative action did not make the standards higher. It just began around the same time that other major changes were taking place, including coeducation at formerly all-male schools and a major shift away from legacy admissions and toward greater emphasis on scores and grades.
Over the course of the 1960s, elite East Coast colleges seriously reduced their investment in the sons of the traditional East-Coast elite and began investing much more heavily in academically talented middle-class students from public schools. The reasons for this are complex. Part has to do with the richest schools becoming rich enough, for the first time, to become relatively independent of their traditional old-money clients. Another part has to do with universities' changing sense of where America's leadership class was going to come from in the future. Ivy League schools bet (correctly, as it turned out) that the old East Coast ruling class was going to keep a major seat at the table but would no longer dominate national institutions as it had before World War II. Schools adjusted their admissions strategies accordingly, reducing the number of legacy and prep-school kids so that they represented a large and still-important but not predominant share of each entering class. At the same time, schools took more upwardly-mobile public-school kids with impressive SATs. Some old-money alumni naturally howled bloody murder about reverse discrimination. But in the long run, it seems to have been the right move.
Naturally, it was the academically-weaker legacy kids who got left out of this process. The Gentlemen's C is no longer a qualification if the school you're applying to is no longer primarily interested in recruiting gentlemen. This was a real and large academic change. One Princeton alumni group pamphlet from the 1950s makes it clear that every "Princeton son" who applies will automatically get in if he looks like he can make it through to graduation. (The pamphlet goes on to reassure worried parents that the lowest quartile of Princeton boys is absolutely stuffed with legacies, so don't worry that your precious child needs to a genius.) That isn't even remotely the case any more. Legacies still have a very large statistical advantage in college admissions, but today they face an only slightly (if crucially) easier standard than non-legacies face. (Of course, when standards have risen so high, a slight relaxation matters enormously.) The days of you're-in-if-you-won't-flunk are long gone.
As the aristocrats with mediocre grades got replaced by studious middle-class kids, the overall academic qualifications for admitted students rose sharply. The academic qualifications of that "other" ninety percent admitted to Harvard have gone upward with them. "Good enough" grades for a lacrosse star applying to Harvard today are a lot higher than "good enough" grades for a lacrosse star in 1935 or 1955. Admitting women (and thereby doubling the pool of potential applicants) only made competition fiercer, and the excessive admissions arms race of the last thirty years, with selective admissions rates falling nearly every year and those at the most selective schools going from around 20% to somewhere in the single digits, has relentlessly kept defining "decent grades" upward. Every generation of Ivy Leaguers is full of people who will tell you, "Of course, I would never get in today."
Affirmative action didn't cause that upward spiral in academic expectations. But it hasn't been a noticeable drag on it. And more importantly, the definition of "good enough" grades for an affirmative action applicant is essentially pegged to the standard of "good enough grades" for other kinds of favored applicants. As "good enough" grades for athletes and legacies have gotten higher, so have "good enough" grades for recruited minorities.
Of course, "good enough" grades for black and Latino applicants will never be as low as "good enough" grades for legacies or athletes. Selective colleges' interest in recruiting lacrosse players and aristocrats has always been greater than their interest in recruiting disadvantaged minorities. Studies of admissions have repeatedly shown that the advantages for athletes and legacies is significantly higher than any advantage for underrepresented minorities. (It's worth noting that anti-affirmative-action plaintiff Abigail Fisher has no problem with legacy preferences. One of her complaints about how UT has done her wrong is that all of her family has gone to UT. Clearly, she thinks giving her an advantage because of that would be more than fair.)
At bottom, schools perceive recruiting athletes and legacies as better for the school's long-term advantage than recruiting minorities. They want to recruit future leaders from minority communities, but they want to recruit track stars and aristocrats even more. The average academic standards for affirmative-action recruits hovers somewhere above the average academic standards set for big-time legacies and lacrosse heroes. As competitive pressure has raised the floor for the athletes and legacies, the expectations for recruited minorities have also increased. That is not the story anyone tells about affirmative action in America's colleges. But it is what's actually happening.