Now that the U.S. Supreme Court will once again discuss affirmative action, a decades-old debate over whether the policy is fair has been rekindled. Some, such as the plaintiffs in SFFA vs. Harvard and SFFA vs. UNC cases, they say that taking race into account in admissions to ensure a quorum of admitted black, Hispanic and Native American students is unfair to white and Asian American applicants. Others say it’s unfair to black, Hispanic and Native American students no consider race in admissions. After all, these groups have historically been excluded from top colleges, and the ongoing systemic racism in American society continues to lead to racially unequal educational opportunities for children.
But “fairness” is the wrong question altogether. It assumes that selective colleges select the “best,” most deserving applicants in an individualistic meritocratic competition—as if there is one, agreed-upon thing (or set of things) that defines an applicant’s merit. Interestingly, we generally understand that employees are selected based on what the company needs, not because they deserve more or are objectively better than other candidates for the job. But we rarely apply the same logic when it comes to college admissions.
It would be better to acknowledge the reality that the job of the admissions committee is not to select some single “best” candidate, but to make decisions that support the organizational needs of the university. In fact, colleges already do this anyway. Colleges don’t just go by the list of applicants, they accept students in order of their achievements. And often their decisions give more weight to reasons that make privileged applicants seem more worthy than less privileged ones.
Let’s take the example of money. Like all organizations, colleges must balance their budgets. This means that most colleges rely on admitting more students from wealthy families (who can pay full tuition) than from poor, working-class, or middle-class families. This also means that they give an incentive to admit children of parents who make significant donations, or who are “legacies” (children of former college students). Most of us would certainly disagree that these considerations are part of the selection of students who most “deserve” an education at a college that has more applicants than seats.
In addition to financial and development offices, many admissions officers respond to coaches who recruit great athletes whose grades may not be comparable to students who are not admitted athletes. College administrators like to boast that they have “students from every state in the country,” so admissions offices often make sure to admit at least one student from these sparsely populated Midwestern states, giving applicants from those places a boost in admissions, too.
The list of campus interests that admissions officers must satisfy is long. So instead of asking if college admissions is fair, we ask should It is questionable whether these interests are what drive the college’s mission. College admissions is indeed broken, but the solution isn’t to find some mythical “perfect” system in which you can magically evaluate the qualities of applicants in the context of the opportunities they’ve had in life and reject those who are somehow less deserving. Instead, colleges should carefully and carefully examine their own raison d’etre and align their admissions policy with their mission.
When we think about mission, it becomes clear that affirmative action is central to the work that most colleges do. Most of us understand that teaching and research are key aspects of the mission of colleges. But many colleges also identify contributing to the public good and promoting social mobility as part of their mission.
The US Supreme Court upheld this opinion. In a 2003 decision allowing affirmative action to continue, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, recognized the importance of diverse leadership so that everyone in society sees that leadership as legitimate. Given the continuing lack of diversity in leadership in the U.S. today, affirmative action clearly still has a role to play in fostering more diverse leadership.
Positive action also makes sense for social mobility. Researchers have shown that for black, Hispanic, and first-generation college students, attending a more selective college is most important in terms of future earnings. This mechanism for social mobility is important given that the average wealth of whites in the United States is eight times greater than the average wealth of blacks. Growing up in a high-income family is a much stronger predictor of high income in adulthood for white than for black Americans, so affirmative action can increase social mobility even for black and Hispanic children of professionals.
Of course, colleges still have to make ends meet—without staying on the surface, there is no missionary work. But as colleges consider where to spend dollars, what to ask donors for support, and who to admit, putting social mobility and contributions to society at the forefront will likely lead to different decisions than those currently made.
Instead of pandering, responding piecemeal to the many interests of student cities, and humbly advocating affirmative action as a policy that somehow “fixes” the individualistic meritocracy that colleges are supposed to run, selective colleges should take a much stronger stance. This includes: noting their goals and mission and how affirmative action fits in with them; abandoning policies that are clearly not aligned and reducing those that are weakly aligned; and doubling financial aid and reducing costs to facilitate the acquisition of a student body that more closely resembles the class and racial composition of young adults in the United States today. When they do, colleges will stop fueling the burning myth of meritocracy in the United States.
Natasha Warikoo is the Lenore Stern Professor of Social Sciences at Tufts University and the author of Is Affirmative Action Fair? The myth of fairness in college admissions.