This piece looking at the importance of race-based affirmative action was written by Natasha Warikoo, a professor in the sociology department at Tufts University and an expert on racial and ethnic inequality in education. A former Guggenheim fellow and high school teacher, she published two books this year: “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools,” and “Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions,” a short primer on affirmative action, including a chapter on Asian Americans.
When Harvard University rejects 19 of every 20 applicants, it seems foolhardy to think we can predict who will get in. But beliefs about who deserves to be admitted to particular colleges (and, implicitly, who doesn’t) are rampant in the United States. “Can you believe X got into Y but didn’t get into Z? That’s not fair!” the story goes. This is a faulty — and harmful — understanding of how college admissions works. And it feeds the loud critiques of affirmative action that have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court again.
The truth is that no one deserves to be admitted to the college of their dreams, no matter how hard-working, accomplished, or ambitious they may be. Colleges select students the way that employers select jobseekers: They identify what they need and want, and then look for people who fit the bill.
For most elite colleges this includes: Enough full-pay students to balance the financial aid budget. Players for every position on the college’s varsity sports teams (including those such as squash and crew that are unavailable to most American high school students). Happy alumni who will donate generously to the college. A balance of academic interests so that the philosophy department does not want for students. Diversity of lived experiences. Students with skills to be successful in the college’s academic coursework. And yes, racial diversity to create a rich learning environment and to cultivate diverse leaders for the future. The list goes on. Of course, the most selective colleges have a plethora of students to choose from: There are many more amazing young people in the United States and beyond than there is room at Harvard.
In hiring decisions, we understand that definitions of “merit” are always situational. But when it comes to college admissions, we somehow expect to determine a best, most worthy candidate based on a standard, uniform definition. We would never expect a hospital to select the same person for the roles of doctor, head of accounting, or operations. These roles require different training, skills and experiences to be done well, and all are critical to the functioning of a hospital.
Despite the myriad interests admissions offices must satisfy, applicants and their families often treat college admission as if it measures worthiness. That’s why parents often put the names of their children’s college on their car (but not, I might add, the names of the firms in which their children work). And when we tell our children, “You have to work hard to get in to the best college you can,” we fuel this belief that where you go to college determines your self-worth. We imagine admissions offices ranking applicants from best to worst, and taking the top ones until they fill their classes.
This faulty narrative of college admission as a measure of worth explains why a high-achieving teen I met while doing research told me that despite being accepted early action to the top college for his chosen field of study, he still planned to apply to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He wanted to see if he would get in, even though he had no interest in attending the college. I was confused; why do the extra work and pay the extra money? But after some time I understood that he and his peers measured their self-worth through where they got into college. It was about ranking, not fit. So, while he rightly decided to go to a college strong in his interests, he wanted to determine if he was worthy of a higher-ranked one.
These beliefs become even more problematic when we consider the student bodies at our top colleges. Elite colleges routinely admit student bodies in which around half of students do not require financial aid — that is, their families can afford to pay $75,000 per year, which is more than the median household income in the United States. Despite affirmative action, Latinos, too, continue to be underrepresented. Buying into the belief that those admitted to Harvard are more worthy and more deserving than others amounts to a belief that working-class, middle-class and Latino youths are less deserving and less worthy than more advantaged groups, year after year.
The misguided belief that college admission is an individualized meritocracy also obscures the purposes and benefits of affirmative action. Affirmative action grew out of a recognition on the part of selective colleges that they had, for centuries, excluded African Americans, either explicitly or implicitly through admissions criteria unavailable to most African Americans.
Today, colleges practicing affirmative action recognize the strong fit with their mission; it fosters greater learning and helps build a diverse leadership that will benefit society overall. Most colleges in fact say that beyond teaching and research, their mission is to contribute to a better society.
If you believe, as I do, that there are hard-working, smart, ambitious youths from all walks of life, you should understand, too, that college admission is not a measure of those qualities. Once we discard the myth of individualist meritocracy in college admissions, it becomes much clearer why affirmative action can and should continue to play a role in the future of higher education.