This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions. The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics. The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.
The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.
Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.
University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”
None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”
In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.
So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?
However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?
Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars. Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?
Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.
Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?
The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans. When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities.