Colleges Use, Then Deny Quotas (2018 Aug)

by Barry A. Liebling

How should elite, selective colleges decide which students to admit into their programs? What are they actually doing? How do administrators describe their policies to the outside world?

Here is the bottom line. Admissions officers at prestigious colleges recognize that individual student merit is the most important and most just way to select new students. However, they want to recruit students based on “social justice.” A student’s group membership (either a favored group or an “unearned privileged” group) can override the student’s academic record. So the officers go full speed ahead with their leftist agenda while pretending that student achievement is paramount. The hypocrisy is easy to detect.

The best admissions policy is to go strictly by merit. Develop a set of criteria – including grades and test scores – and accept students who score the highest. Of course, the criteria should be evaluated against real-world college performance. Do students with the highest marks generally perform better in college than those with lower scores? If so, there is some justification to continue using the grades and tests. If not, the standards used for admission lack validity, and different rules for ranking prospective students should be developed and evaluated.

Mainstream leftists are uncomfortable with admissions based solely on merit. They realize rigorous, objective, performance-based rules for selecting students may not lead to a result that they want. Social justice warriors want to increase the representation of groups they like on campus and reduce the number of students who belong to groups they despise. Of course, leftists do not typically use this nomenclature. Instead they use the Marxist terms of oppressed groups and oppressor groups.

To leftists the problem with admitting students according to their academic achievement is that it does not give administrators the flexibility they crave to adjust the economic, geographical, ethnic, and sexual makeup of the successful applicants. If a college goes only by merit there may be (say leftist college officials – usually a redundant term) the “wrong proportion” of students representing various categories. For example, administrators fret that pure merit might let in too many white males, not enough females, or too few students from racial minorities.

The solution that has been used at colleges for more than half a century is to establish quotas. Get more students from oppressed groups in, and keep more representatives of the oppressors out. For many years it has been common practice among colleges to insist they are not really aiming for quotas, but the institution has a policy of affirmative action – an “acceptable” euphemism for quotas. More recently it has become fashionable for colleges to drop the affirmative action label and replace it with “diversity and inclusiveness.” The intentions and actions of the administrators remain the same.

It is interesting to note that leftist activists have a love-hate relationship with affirmative action for college admissions. On the one hand they insist that it is absolutely necessary to assure fairness and that anyone who opposes it is a villainous bigot. Then these same defenders of “social justice” proclaim that it is a terrible insult to identify a student as someone who entered a college because of affirmative action. They say the applicant would have been admitted anyway, even without affirmative action. The policy is necessary to preserve, but it is extremely rude to point out specific students who benefitted from it. Does this remind you of the writings of George Orwell?

Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported on the practice of some high prestige colleges using legacy status in its admissions process. In essence, the institutions favor applicants if their parents were also students at the school. The rationale is that legacy admissions leads to more generous donations. Note that the practice of favoring relatives of alumni is nothing new and has been going on for more than 100 years. Grateful parents are likely to shower the college with money before their child is admitted, afterwards, or both. The “problem” according to the article is that legacy admissions take up slots that could have (should have among social justice advocates) gone to students from under-represented and oppressed groups. Of course, since there is a finite number of openings each year, admitting anyone necessarily subtracts from the total number of available slots.

Note that legacy admissions is a departure from merit based student selection. While some colleges take this into account, other assiduously avoid them. They tell alums, “we want your child to apply, but we give no special favors.” To an advocate of merit this is a step in the right direction.

While the future is always uncertain, there are some indications that college admissions based on group membership will decrease. In 2014 an organization representing Asian students sued Harvard University for unfair discrimination. According to the plaintiffs, Harvard has systematically rejected ethnic Asians with high grades and high test scores in favor of other ethnic minorities with less impressive records. Their argument is that students with excellent records should be admitted on merit and their ethnicity should not be held against them. The final outcome of the case could have consequences that impact on many other colleges besides Harvard.

Here is a question for the plaintiffs in the Harvard case. If it is wrong to discriminate against ethnic Asians is it also wrong to discriminate against people of any ethnic group? The correct answer is that ethnic membership should not count at all in college admissions. The “social justice” answer is that members of oppressed groups deserve every consideration, and anyone belonging to a group that has historically been oppressive deserves nothing.

The best long-term outcome requires that college recruiters change their world-view. They should focus on individual achievement and give up the Marxian practice of viewing applicants as representatives of either “good groups” or “bad groups?” It is not too late for them to correct their errors.

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