The Supreme Court’s decision to hear a major case challenging affirmative-action policies at the University of Texas is widely seen as a sign that the five conservative justices in the majority are ready to do away with racial preferences in higher education.
The prevailing legal view is that such a ruling will reduce the number of black and Latino students at almost every selective college and graduate school. But why does that have to be the case? For an answer, consider another question: What is the role of the college admissions officer?
If the court restricts the use of affirmative action or set-asides, both public and private colleges and universities will have to develop a set of characteristics for the selection process that are less politically charged. Each school will respond appropriately in its own way. But on the whole, the impact will be similar, if not uniform, across the country.
Using only high-school grades and standardized tests would give us a freshman class with far more women than men. Therefore, some balancing will be necessary to ensure gender equity (except at Barnard, Smith and Mount Holyoke). Geographical representation (for non-state-supported schools) will be sought. The major field of study will become more significant in choosing applicants than is currently the case: There will be room for chemists, yes, but also linguists.
It is hard to predict if this system would be better or worse, more or less equitable than the present system.
Affirmative action has been a bitter, but necessary, pill. Designed to right a wrong, it began to provide opportunities for a portion of the population that has been unjustly denied access to education and opportunity. What began as a remedy for one group -- black Americans -- was later broadened to include a wide selection of others: women, Latinos, American Indians, people with disabilities and special needs, veterans and several other groups.
The current special set-asides in college admissions serve two very different purposes: to improve access for under-represented groups, as noted; but also to deliberately build a diverse multidimensional class because a diversity of gender, ethnicity, geographical origin and talents is good for its own sake, irrespective of whether a wrong is to be righted.
How does one define merit in admissions? Standardized tests have their own problems and are often criticized for perceived biases against disadvantaged students who have received an inferior K-12 education or who lack experience in taking such exams. Letters of recommendation are subjective and often tell us as much about the writers as about the candidates.
High-school grades and, by extension, class standings are increasingly subject to a subtle gaming of the ranking system. School districts want to be known as places where their graduates go on to excellent colleges and universities. Since students with high grades tend to be admitted more easily than those with lower ones, there has been an inflation of grades over recent years. Today’s B plus is yesterday’s B minus, and hardly anyone in college-bound classes ever flunks. High-school students are not always held to rigorous standards, and colleges often have a difficult time equating the grades from one school to another.
Formula for Harvard
Merit measured solely by grades would bring us a class of students who were one-dimensional in some ways and uneven in others. Harvard could fill its class with high-school seniors with near-perfect SATs, all valedictorians. Who wants to go to college to meet fellow freshmen from only Newton, Scarsdale, Bethesda, Shaker Heights or Palo Alto -- the tried and true upper-middle-class communities?
Colleges are going to look for ways to continue economic diversity, cultural pluralism, gender equity and geographic distribution because it makes a far more interesting group of students to study with and learn from. The purpose of the admissions officer is not to attract to his or her campus a group of students who are uniformly consistent. It is to take from some large pool of applicants a reduced number with a cross section of characteristics.
The challenge is to assemble a class that fits both the academic blueprint and the budget of the institution (balancing tuition income and financial aid). To do this, the admissions committee seeks men and women; humanists, hard scientists and social scientists; domestic and international students, and musicians, artists and athletes. The search for a golden mean involves both hard data and intuition. The experience of reading hundreds of resumes, perhaps thousands, over years informs the perception and judgment of admissions officers.
A liberal-arts education introduces students to a broad base of academic subjects, and on most campuses students are required to study languages, literature, economics, history, fine arts, mathematics and science. In each of these classes, some students are naturally more adept at mastering the subject, and each discipline draws some students and repels others. No campus, not even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is looking only for students who wish to major in physics.
Different institutions are searching in different areas of the universe. The Juilliard School has its agenda, as does the California Institute of Technology. St. John’s College looks for undergraduates with very different interests from those at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, though neither is looking for one-dimensional people.
In the end, the view of merit in students and the concept of what makes up a high-quality entering class have evolved in the past 25 years. A multicultural community is at the heart of every campus from New York University to the University of Mississippi.
For generations colleges were most inventive in finding ways to keep Jews and blacks out. Now they may have an opportunity to use their wits to find the legal means to admit and enroll multicultural classes without the use of affirmative action. My money is on the universities, which were, after all, open for business before the Constitution was drafted.
Schools will work within the law, as they have in the past, and they will be creative in responding to any court ruling as they continue to fulfill their mission. After all, colleges are known for their creative interpretation of the classics -- whether they are by Shakespeare or the chief justice.
(Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor at George Washington University and a partner at Korn/Ferry International. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg at Trachtenberg@gwu.edu.
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