The Biggest Misconception Americans Have about Race-Conscious Admissions
I was surprised to learn this week that 73% of Americans don’t believe race should be a factor in college admissions. How can a policy so widespread be so unpopular?
The disconnect lies in a confusion with the ideas of fairness and merit.
Americans like to strive towards a meritocracy, an ideal where power and privilege are awarded purely on the basis of talent. Want a job? Be good at it. Soccer teams find the best goal-scorers for their team, and medical practices find the best doctors to perform surgeries. People are rewarded for their merit; we call this a meritocracy.
How does this manifest itself for colleges? Take Harvard as an example.
Harvard’s mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society…through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” Ignoring race is impossible for an institution committed to educating “citizens and citizen-leaders.” And let’s be precise with our language: as far as a student contributes to Harvard’s mission, they “merit” their admission.
Again, this is generally speaking what “merit” entails: people judged on their ability to further established goals.
But “merit” is not “fairness.” It’s not fair that Justin Bieber can sing like a bird and I can’t, but in our meritocracy, Justin Bieber gets millions of listeners and I get nothing but my shower walls.
We should first grant that Harvard is not seeking purely academic success because that’s not their mission. But they’re also not asking who “deserves admission.” That’s not the point of a meritocracy.
For better or for worse, Harvard is not a parent to society, dividing up dessert according to who earned it. They cannot control for genetic luck, social luck, and random luck. I think frustrations with race-based college admissions are rooted in this lack of fairness. It’s the realization — a first for many privileged students and families — that the American blueprint was never designed to be fair. In a meritocracy, hard work is rarely enough.
If we are to take seriously the concerns manifested by the 73% of Americans who question race-conscious admissions, we need to situate college admissions within a larger discussion about how to organize society. Something is wrong with a system, meritocratic or otherwise, where we funnel 18-year-old kids into different walks of life largely on the basis of innumerable factors out of their control.
How do we approach this broken system? For a start, we can dramatically reduce the differences in social luck over the first 18 years of children’s lives. We can prioritize closing the gap between public and private education so that less privileged upbringings do not render applicants less deserving of higher education. We can listen to the mounting body of research suggesting the importance of early childcare and make it more accessible and effective. We can support higher education institutions moving away from legacy admissions. We can continue to identify and remedy racial injustices throughout society. People devote their lives to preparing the answers to these questions. They only await political recognition and support from our democracy.
We also need to remove colleges from their current role as gatekeepers of economic mobility. For one, this isn’t even efficient. Many jobs don’t require a liberal arts education. Bolstering the prevalence of vocational schools and other career-preparatory programs would direct traffic to the job market in a way that more efficiently selects and prepares people for their future roles. Alongside better policies on income inequality, it would also go a long way towards restoring fairness in our system. People would feel like they could find some career calling that both highlights their strengths and provides them with a decent standard of living — so that, no matter their natural-born abilities, they would have ample opportunities to make the most, or least, of those circumstances as they could. The mania of college admissions would also dissolve.
Third and finally, we need to address our rapidly growing income and wealth inequality. College admissions feel so high stakes because the differences between poor, middle class, rich, super-rich, and super-super-rich have never been larger. Is it sensible to want the cleverest financial managers working at the biggest banks, regardless of how much luck went into their ability? Sure. It’s not sensible, however, to let them earn 50 times the average American. Nobody is worth that much.
The word “meritocracy” was originally used to describe a dystopian society based on the ideals of rewarding intelligence and ability, where power and privilege end up concentrated in the hands of a meritorious elite. It’s time Americans stop trying to purify such a toxic system and refocus our energies on innovating ways to restore fairness and justice to our social contract.