This article on 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 inequalities in education. A former Guggenheim scholarship holder and high school teacher, she published two books this year:Race to the top: Asian Americans and whites chasing the American dream in suburban schools,” and “Is affirmative action right? The Myth of Fairness in College Admissionsa short introduction to affirmative action, including a chapter on Asian Americans.
When Harvard University rejects 19 out of 20 applicants, it seems foolhardy to think we can predict who will get in. . “Can you believe that X entered Y but did not enter Z? That’s not fair!” the story continues. This is a misunderstanding – and harmful – of how college admissions works. And that’s fueling the vociferous criticism of affirmative action that has once again been taken to the US Supreme Court.
The truth is that no one deserved gain admission to the college of their dreams, no matter how hardworking, accomplished, or ambitious they are. Colleges screen students the same way employers screen job seekers: they identify what they need and want, then find people who fit the bill.
For most elite colleges, this includes: Enough full-salary students to balance the financial aid budget. Players for every position on college varsity sports teams (including those such as squash and crew that are unavailable to most American high school students). Happy graduates who will make a generous donation to the college. A balance of academic interests so that students do not miss the philosophy department. Diversity of lived experiences. Students with the skills necessary to succeed in college academic courses. And yes, racial diversity to create a rich learning environment and cultivate diverse leaders for the future. The list continues. Of course, the most selective colleges have a plethora of students to choose from: There are many more incredible young people in the United States and beyond than there is room for at Harvard.
In hiring decisions, we understand that definitions of “merit” are always situational. But when it comes to college admissions, we kind of expect to determine the 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 physician, chief accounting or operations. These roles require different training, skills, and experiences to perform well, and all are essential to the operation of a hospital.
Despite the myriad interests that admissions offices must accommodate, applicants and their families often treat college admission as if it were a measure of value. This is why parents often put the name of their children’s college on their car (but not, I might add, the names of the companies where their children work). And when we say to our kids, “You have to work hard to get into the best college you can,” we’re fueling that belief that where you go to college determines your self-esteem. We imagine that admissions offices rank applicants from best to worst and take the best until they fill their classes.
This erroneous narrative of college admission as a measure of worth explains why a high achiever teenager I met while researching told me that despite being accepted early to the best 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 be admitted, even though he had no interest in attending college. I was confused; why do the extra work and pay the extra money? But after a while, I realized that he and his peers measured their self-esteem by their entry into college. It was a matter of ranking, not form. So, although he rightly decided to go to a university strong in his interests, he wanted to determine if he was worthy of a higher-ranking university.
These beliefs become even more problematic when we consider the student numbers of our top colleges. Elite colleges routinely admit student bodies in which approximately half of students do not need financial aid — that is, their families can afford to pay $75,000 a year, which is more than the median household income in the USA. Despite the affirmative action, Latinos also continue to be underrepresented. Adhering to the belief that those admitted to Harvard are more worthy and deserving than others is tantamount to believing that working-class, middle-class, and Latino youth are less deserving and less worthy than more advantaged groups, year after year.
The mistaken belief that college admission is an individualized meritocracy also obscures the goals and benefits of affirmative action. Affirmative action grew out of an acknowledgment by selective colleges that they had, for centuries, excluded African Americans, either explicitly or implicitly through admissions criteria inaccessible to most African Americans. .
Today, colleges practicing affirmative action recognize the strong fit with their mission; it promotes better learning and helps build diverse leadership that will benefit society as a whole. Most colleges assert that beyond teaching and research, their mission is to contribute to a better society.
If you believe, as I do, that there are hardworking, intelligent, ambitious young people from all walks of life, you also need to understand that college admission is not a measure of these qualities. Once we dismiss the myth of individualistic 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.