Supreme Court might miss some hazards in college admissions

Posted Saturday, Jun. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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At Oxford University in England, admissions criteria are clear. As the admissions director there told me recently, what matters is an applicant’s potential to succeed in the subject she wants to study.

A student wanting to study mathematics, say, must nail the math entrance exam, and in an interview show the potential to be an outstanding mathematician. Whether she is a concert violinist, the first in her family to go on to higher education, or the only female applicant in mathematics is irrelevant.

Oxford students believe in this system. They feel that the university isn’t responsible for making British society equal. But that’s not how things have worked in the U.S. for nearly 100 years — and perhaps not ever.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on a case involving U.S. college admissions that could lead to significant changes. The lawsuit was initially brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas and claims that she experienced racial discrimination.

But it’s important to understand the broader context of U.S. admissions policies when considering affirmative action.

Although we’d like to believe that universities have always admitted students based on some objective definition of merit, in fact admissions criteria have changed dramatically over time.

Until the 1920s, elite universities in the United States administered exams to determine the “best” students. But even then, the exams had their biases — for example, they usually contained material such as Latin that was taught only in elite schools.

That system began to change after Ivy League schools became alarmed at the number of Jewish students applying and scoring well on the tests. So elite schools began to shift their definitions of “merit.”

Columbia University led the way by introducing “character” as something to be considered in admissions decisions.

During the 1960s, this flexible understanding of merit started to shift. No longer used to exclude Jews, it began being used to address the under-representation of black students.

Today, selective U.S. universities consider a range of attributes beyond academics in making admissions decisions. These include extracurricular activities, athletic prowess, hardships overcome, legacy status and race.

In my research at elite U.S. universities today, I’ve found that undergraduates are comfortable with these flexible notions of merit. They express a belief that racially diverse campuses are necessary to their training as future citizens and leaders in our globalized world.

Athletes, they argue, contribute to a fun campus life and demonstrate merit in athletics, while legacy admissions bring funds to the university that can potentially contribute to scholarships for more disadvantaged students.

Since long before Abigail Fisher was born, admissions policies in the United States have been highly subjective, responding to the desires and needs of society and the academic institution itself.

Race-based affirmative action is a part of the picture, and it symbolizes a deep commitment to the pursuit of racial justice in a country plagued by racial inequality.

Black Americans are still more than twice as likely to be poor as white Americans; black children are more likely to attend underperforming, racially segregated schools than white children; and whites with a criminal record are more likely to receive a callback on job applications than blacks with no criminal record.

More than 50 years ago, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term meritocracy. He intended the term to have negative connotations, referring to a dystopia in which the elite use notions of merit to justify and maintain their status across generations.

If the Supreme Court ruling bans the consideration of factors that promote racial equality and justice in admissions decisions, but allows universities to continue considering other kinds of non-academic “merit” that increase inequality, we will be one step closer to the kind of dysfunctional “meritocracy” Young envisioned.

Natasha Kumar Warikoo is an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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