The college admissions scandal exposed criminal and unethical actions that undermine the promise of the American university system. To get to the root of the crisis, this roundtable discussion—curated by Public Books and JSTOR Daily—asks scholars to go back to the drawing board and answer the most basic of questions: What would constitute a fair college admissions process?
For further reading, please see our annotated biblioraphy Affirmative Action: Foundations and Key Concepts.
What’s Really Unfair? Race-Neutral College Admissions
Recently news broke that dozens of individuals, including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid thousands of dollars to buy admission to some of the nation’s elite universities. This spectacularly terrible scandal raises questions about how to build a more fair system. On top of the scandal, other troubling practices such as legacy admissions and donor preferences remind us that admissions is biased toward the wealthy. Some might also think that getting rid of any recognition of an applicant’s race/ethnicity, so-called “race-neutral” admissions, is a step in the right direction.
At face value, the concept of race-neutrality may seem fair. What could be more fair than something that is supposedly neutral? However, I can confidently say that any system that does not address the contexts of racial and economic inequality is deeply unfair. Given the state of educational inequality in our country, solely relying on race-neutral policies does not eliminate discrimination; it reinforces it.
Ironically, admissions systems that do not pay attention to the nuances of race and class oftentimes defend themselves under the guise of “fairness” or “meritocracy.” These systems, such as the process used for decades to determine admission to New York City’s most elite public high schools, are based solely on standardized metrics of achievement, in many cases on a single test score cutoff. Supporters of such systems argue that nothing is fairer than a “race-neutral” admissions system based on a single test that everyone has the chance to study for and take. Isn’t a test objective, and even better, easily evaluated, insofar as a higher number is clearly better than even a slightly lower number?
However, the highest test scores are often bought at a literal price—the price of enrollment in SAT prep courses. As I explain in my book Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data, East Asian American students are much more likely than other groups to take these courses, and other research indicates that they are actually the only group that demonstrates statistically significant gains from taking such courses. Of course, there are many, many incredibly talented East Asian American students. However, this research highlights how colleges should consider that so-called neutral test scores are anything but neutral. The playing field is far from equal. The same goes for privileges in college preparation enjoyed largely by affluent White families. As I explain in Race on Campus, the solution is not just to throw SAT prep at low-income students. The roots of inequality go much deeper.
While test-based and/or so-called neutral (i.e., “race-neutral” or “class-neutral”) admissions seem fair, they are deeply flawed, because they fail to take into account the student’s context for educational opportunity. I’ll tell you what’s really unfair. Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon identified a gap of over four grade levels in academic performance between America’s most affluent and least affluent students. Further: “On average white students score one and [a] half or more grade levels higher than black and Hispanic students enrolled in socioeconomically similar school districts.” How is this fair?
Now, to some people, race-conscious holistic admissions—the general mode of operation at selective institutions of higher education—smacks of unfairness. In holistic admissions, test scores and GPAs are looked at alongside other relevant pieces of information—not just the number of extracurricular activities, but how students describe what they got out of their experiences. Essays that provide more insight into who a student is beyond the numbers. Teacher and guidance counselor recommendations, the quality of the high school, life hardships that a student may have overcome, the likelihood of them being able to take SAT prep, special talents, career aspirations, and, among many other factors, consideration of race and social class.
In holistic admissions, race cannot be the sole or even primary determinant of admission. It cannot work in a formulaic way that guarantees anyone admission or denial to an institution. As noted in Fisher II v. University of Texas at Austin, race operates as “factor of a factor of a factor.” White plaintiff Abigail Fisher was denied admission from UT Austin, but hundreds of Black and Brown students with stronger academic records than hers were also rejected.
Under holistic admissions, there is no guarantee that the highest-scoring students will gain admission, in part because the number of students with such accomplishments can outnumber the number of spots available in a first-year class. Furthermore, top universities are generally interested in pulling together a class with a greater range of traits and talents than the ability to get the absolute highest test score, which makes sense given the pervasiveness of SAT prep among the upper middle class and some ethnic groups. Being the valedictorian may reflect well on a student, but it is no guarantee of admission. As Karen Arnold shows in her research on the long-term outcomes for such students, valedictorians tend not to garner exceptional achievements later in life. The type of extreme conscientiousness associated with being No. 1 in high school, while undeniably a talent, doesn’t usually translate into the student becoming a risk-taking visionary later in life. Thus, nuance and discernment are needed to examine a student’s achievements—for instance, does a top class rank say more about whether a student is a rule follower than whether they possess passion and innovation?
These are some of the issues at stake in the pending lawsuit Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, and in other affirmative action cases around the country. In SFFA v. Harvard, the complaint is filled with narratives of high-achieving Asian American students who did not gain admission. For example, one was a National Merit Semifinalist with a perfect ACT score and the top possible marks on two SAT II subject tests. But as I discuss here, Harvard’s applicant pool had almost 1,000 students who scored a perfect score on the ACT or SAT, and its freshman class is around 1,600 students. Nineteen percent of students who take the Math II test get a perfect 800. There are over 16,000 National Merit Semifinalists. Top marks do not make someone a standout. Is that unfair?
Let’s remember what’s even more unfair: That low-income students and so many students of color are denied access to high-quality public schools. That many affluent, White, and East Asian American students experience tremendous advantage in college preparation. And of course, that there exist policies and practices that overtly favor the wealthy, from donor preferences to the incredible admissions scandal of recent months. These things are much, much more unfair than someone with a perfect SAT score—one of thousands of similar applicants in the pool—getting turned down by Harvard and then being able to attend some other fantastic college.
Opponents of race-conscious admissions argue that such policies are unsuccessful because the vast majority of students of color at our nation’s elite colleges are wealthy, or “rich minorities.” However, as found in the groundbreaking work of William Bowen and Derek Bok, Black students at elite colleges are much more likely than White students to come from low-income families. Furthermore, White students attending such institutions are far more likely to come from the most affluent families. Research by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford documents how colleges give considerable preference to low-income students of color, showing how both race and class are addressed in tandem.
Race-conscious holistic admissions is imperfect, because the broader K–12 system remains highly unequal. However, the answer is not to ignore race in the name of so-called fairness, but to take it into consideration. Race- and class-conscious admissions cannot fix everything that is wrong with our education system, but it is a far improvement over the alternatives, making a blatantly unfair world perhaps a little more fair.
What Constitutes a Fair Admissions Process?
When Public Books invited me, back in early February, to contribute thoughts on fair admissions to elite colleges, I wrote the essay that follows from the most theoretical and idealistic perspective possible, questioning the very terms of fairness and college admissions. Today, however, in light of the college scam controversy swirling around William Singer and his celebrity clients, any talk of college admissions must be prefaced by analysis of the fraught nature of the playing field.
That nature is composed of several factors: (1) the high desirability of placement in elite colleges, not necessarily for learning so much as for prestige; (2) the increasingly ultra-competitive undertaking that is securing that placement; (3) the long-standing unevenness of admissions, highlighting the role of class privilege; and (4) the inevitable mix of commerce (e.g., branding) and education, making college admissions subject to the same capitalist imperatives shaping other aspects of college life. Singer’s company represents an industry built on the anxieties of parents who, lacking the personal connections to facilitate admissions for their offspring, must rely on an external business to do so. In short, what in other circumstances may have taken a personal phone call from Daddy or Uncle to someone within the inner sanctum of an elite institution is here replaced by a company that offers a surefire “side door” (Singer’s expression) to success. What family with economic means but without the historic cultural capital of “connections” could resist?
That Singer’s company crossed the line into illegality and got caught is not the morality tale that it might seem. Rather, the real lesson of this criminal episode lies in our own reimagining of the pedestal upon which higher education may impossibly reside. The pedestal includes the human frailties of greed and corruption, along with the ideals of education itself. If we are to uphold the values of critical thinking that higher education espouses, then we must integrate ethical development into instruction. Herein lies the cautionary tale of the Singer fiasco—that higher education and its admissions process should not only identify and prepare “the best and brightest” among the next generation of leaders, but also cultivate its moral foundation.
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Whoever thought that admissions to a university should be fair? The idea seems peculiarly American and builds on 1960s-era social justice movements that assume elite institutions should be made available to a broad spectrum of individuals. It presumes the vitality of its intellectual, social, and political body rests in a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, experiences, and expectations within a particular range of ability. The “best and brightest”—yes. But those deserving the epithet may not be so easy to identify when one broadens what “best and brightest” might look, sound, and feel like. Fairness within this context requires admissions officers to look beyond numbers and conduct the screening process not as science, but as art. This is the art of human assessment, predicting the future from the past. Adding up test scores does not necessarily guarantee success within this ideal of a vibrant, richly diverse educational institution. Nor is GPA a pure predictor, if the successful life of a campus is also measured by unquantifiable elements such as leadership and creativity, both broadly conceived.
What admissions officers must do first, then, is understand their own institution; second, get to know the applicant; and third, assess the fit between campus and applicant. This process requires what I call “flexible fairness,” which involves the moving parts by which an institution may constantly grow and become a better version of itself. Flexible fairness privileges certain aspects—intellectual capacity, willingness to work, maturity, integrity, personal drive—while not predefining or insisting on any of these. Flexible fairness precludes any single vision of equitable admissions.
The question of “fairness” must always be addressed to the particularities of its constituencies. Thus the question is not, What practices constitute fairness in an admissions process? It must, rather, be reformulated to emphasize the issue of fairness as it pertains to specific purposes in the context of specific institutional histories. So if the institution sets a vision of itself as a particularly dynamic learning environment, then the “fairness” required to fulfill that vision builds on diversity within the pursuit of critical thinking, creativity, and productivity.
I come to these thoughts having compiled student stories while a visiting professor of anthropology at Harvard University in 2014–2015, which resulted in a coedited book, Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words (2018). My time at Harvard, and in particular my conversations with the Asian American students whom I taught in a class geared to their experiences, brought these issues home. These students were certainly impressive in their lists of accomplishments. But they were equally impressive for their energy, initiative, drive, and industry. They knew what it took to conceptualize and complete a task. Although they may have shared similar numbers (SAT and AP Exam scores, GPAs), their contributions went well beyond those superficial achievements. These contributions surfaced not merely in examinations and term papers, but in extracurricular projects, community commitments, fierce debates, and creative endeavors. Our book, Straight A’s, was one of these—begun as a classroom exercise, it blossomed into a collection of searingly honest stories through the networking energy and follow-through of the students. The experience left me highly hopeful for what the art of admissions might produce.
Let me return to the topic of this essay and strip down my response to the questions the editors of Public Books ask.
Definition of fairness: broad access to human and intellectual resources that supports institutional goals. Note that I have not used the words “equal” or “equitable,” mainly because those words tend to reinforce a one-size-fits-all approach to human potential, worthiness, and success. I strongly believe that this is not the case.
Implementation of fairness in admissions processes: acknowledging the inexact art of assessing student potential, I support qualitative, holistic review of applicants that takes a number of factors into consideration. Colleges must select judiciously, keeping in mind “whole person” concerns that include family background—of which race is undeniably a part. They must also consider the entering class that they are creating, striving for some kind of balance among gendered, regional, racialized, and classed factors. This balance, too, goes beyond strict numbers or quotas, reflecting a composite picture of idealized diversity.
Finally, let us consider the folly of “race-blind” admissions. To ignore race would be to take a foundational chunk of a student’s background life out of the reckoning. How to assess the whole person without regard for an abiding feature of their personal history? How to deny the weight of that history, an individual’s family background, and very real cultural context? The fact is, all of these elements matter in understanding just who the candidate is and how they might fit in with the institution. Holistic admissions understands this well, as it embraces the scope of the educated guess.
I write this as we await the judge’s decision on affirmative action at Harvard. Organizations such as the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance are paying close attention. Indeed, “fairness” in admissions is on the line, but not in the way that the anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum—who created the group misleadingly called “Students for Fair Admissions,” with recruited Asian Americans as their public face—would have us believe. “Fairness” includes race-conscious admissions processes that build on Harvard’s and other institutions’ goal of building strength through diversity itself. This vision conceives of diversity as a fundamental part of excellence, not as a sideshow, and requires the “fairness” of admissions procedures that will assure it.
Move Away from Meritocracy
Especially in the wake of the recent news of a coordinated bribery scheme, many people seem to agree our selective college admissions process is broken. There is far less consensus, however, about why we think it’s broken, and what a better, fairer admissions process would look like. Some think that the process would be fair if it were conducted without special considerations for legacy students, development cases, or athletic recruitment. Others go further, focusing on the myriad mundane ways—aside from bribery and donations—that the system allows privileged people to leverage their resources to secure and perpetuate their advantages. But I contend the process is inherently unfair because it is based on meritocratic principles designed to produce unequal outcomes. A truly fair system would reject meritocratic logics and instead operate on the principle that high-quality education is not a reward for the few, but a right of the many.
Our current process, in which applicants are stratified into a hierarchical higher education landscape, takes a meritocratic ideology as its foundational premise. Meritocracy, the term popularized by British sociologist Michael Young’s 1958 The Rise of the Meritocracy, is typically imagined as a system in which all have equal opportunity to compete on a “level playing field” on the basis of “talent” and “ability,” and all are rewarded equitably based on their “merit.” While this system sounds fair at first blush, a meritocratic ideology poses two problems, either of which should be sufficient cause to critically question it, and perhaps abandon it entirely.
First, upholding meritocracy necessarily entails accepting and upholding inequality. In the case of college admissions, we currently have a system in which some schools have more resources, are more prestigious, and are deemed “better” than others, and those schools have limited seats. We try to allocate those seats “fairly,” on the basis of demonstrated past success and evaluations of future potential. It’s far from a perfect system, but we can rationalize it as ideologically consistent with a meritocratic ideal of equal opportunity and reward for individual talent, effort, and ability. But perhaps, rather than focusing on who “deserves” the “best” schooling, our societal commitment should be to making a high-quality education available to all. Such a commitment would require a rejection of the stratification and inequality presupposed by a meritocratic system and lead us to question whether a stratified society—and assignment to places in an unequal education system—could ever be just.
Second, even if one were inclined to find inequality and stratification acceptable, the reality is that we are so far from the ideals of equal opportunity and a level playing field that the unfairness is glaringly obvious. As sociologist Jonathan Mijs argues, opportunities for demonstrating merit are far from equally distributed. In the United States, where racial residential segregation and local control of schools combine to disproportionately relegate nonwhite (especially black) students to underfunded schools, the claim that anything approaching equal opportunity exists is laughable. Our emphasis on standardized tests, which have roots in racist, ableist, eugenicist science, evinces a narrow understanding of what intelligence is or could be. Holistic admissions evaluations, which provide necessary latitude to consider students’ contexts and lived experiences, also provide privileged applicants another opportunity to show off well-filled extracurricular profiles and essays carefully coached and edited by counselors and consultants. In sum, our current admissions process is—top to bottom—built to misrecognize privilege as “merit,” and thus advantage the already advantaged. To say wealthy white applicants are gaming the system belies the fact that they’re really just playing the game—a game in which only they have full access to the equipment. Perhaps the way to fix this is not to try to change the rules, but to stop playing the meritocratic game entirely.
If that seems a drastic proposal, let me try to convince you it’s a necessary one. We could try to work within the current system, striking the policies that are most obviously and egregiously unfair: legacy, donor admissions, early decision, recruitment of athletes in country club sports. While an improvement, this does nothing to address the fact that even with those components stripped out, the process still falls far short of fairness, because our very metrics of merit are skewed toward privilege. We could try to calibrate for disadvantage, but that’s essentially what holistic evaluation tries to do now—and it’s not enough. Meritocracy is an arms race, one in which the privileged are always better equipped.
We could, as many scholars have proposed, move toward a lottery, which would go a long way toward making explicit the role of luck in college admissions. But I’m concerned by the way some thinkers discuss a potential admissions lottery. Proponents of a lottery often suggest that there should be some baseline level of “merit” in order to enter the lottery. Such a formulation of the lottery doesn’t entail a rejection of our metrics of merit, meaning it would likely reproduce existing inequalities. To avoid that, a lottery would need to not use simple random selection, but instead be carefully calibrated to ensure the resulting class is not just representative of the pool (in which wealthy white students are overrepresented), but of graduating high school students. That could be achieved by assigning different weights to students depending on their background, or by using a form of stratified random selection, in which the applicant pool would be divided into smaller pools based on, for example, demographic factors, and a certain number of students would be accepted at random from each pool.
The lottery is an exciting idea, but one likely to run into legal challenges. And beyond that, it doesn’t do enough to address the unfairness inherent in our unequal education system. I think we need to go a step further than asking what constitutes a fair admissions process, and instead ask what constitutes a fair society. We should recognize that our college admissions process is merely holding a mirror up to our society, reflecting how competitive, individualistic, unequal, and unfair the United States is. A truly radical solution would require the reorganization of our entire class structure and the redistribution of resources, thus obviating the need for such a high-stakes college application process.
It seems that we cling to meritocracy as a way of clinging to some hope of a better life in an increasingly unequal world. But rather than investing our hope in a fairer admissions system, I think we should dream bigger, and invest our hope in a more just society—one in which we live in community rather than competition. That might look like taking up Harvard professor Lani Guinier’s call to emphasize “democratic merit,” or it might look like dispensing with merit—and its attendant acceptance of deserved inequality—entirely.
Everyone deserves access to education. A fair admissions system would have that as a core premise and reject ostensibly just, “meritocratic” inequalities.