Race-conscious admissions and the measurement of merit

With the US’ affirmative action policies once again thrust to the centre of public debate, Patricia Gándara reflects on the measures used to deem students deserving of entrance to leading universities

November 2, 2018
Demonstrators hold slogans in front of John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts
Source: Alamy

For the past 40 years the US supreme court has been hearing challenges to affirmative action in college admissions.

Although the court has consistently upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action, it has also narrowly tailored the way in which it can be practiced. The court has held that racial or ethnic background may be considered as one among many characteristics that an applicant brings.

We are now witnessing the sixth attempt to outlaw affirmative action based on a challenge by Chinese students claiming that Harvard has given seats to less academically qualified students from other racial groups and this is evidence of anti-Asian discrimination.  

Harvard contends that race never works against an applicant – it can only work in their favour. Fundamentally, this is a debate over the definition of merit.

And it is not surprising that the debate over merit is so heated. The stakes are high. Education is the primary avenue to social mobility in the US. Evidence abounds that those individuals with the most education on average also have the highest earnings.  

It is also well understood that K-12 schools in the US are extremely unequal, with some providing powerful preparation for college admission and success, and others failing to provide even the minimum coursework required for someone to be admitted to a four-year college.

Those students who are privileged to attend powerful high schools primarily come from middle- and upper-income families that are white or Asian American, and those who attend the failing schools come overwhelmingly from low-income and other racial and ethnic minority families.

No matter how smart and ambitious a student is, if she attends a failing school it can be extraordinarily difficult to compete for admission to a highly competitive college – the kind that graduates almost all its students and provides real social mobility. In good part this is because the students from failing schools are not prepared to excel at taking college admissions tests. And this is certainly the definition of inequity.

Ironically, the advent of the college admission test, what we know as the SAT today, arose from a desire to make access to higher education more equitable.  

Harvard’s president, frustrated with a system that admitted the sons of wealthy families from the northeast irrespective of their academic talents, was seeking a method that could identify talent independent of parental wealth.

President James Conant wanted a fairer admission process that would attract the brightest students rather than the wealthiest ones. Thus was born the College Entrance Examination Board and the forerunner of the SAT. It no doubt improved the fairness of admissions to elite colleges for Euro-American boys in the 1930s, but it also reified the idea that a single test score could sum up the most important characteristics of an applicant. The test score, and a student’s high school grades, became the definition of “merit” in college admissions. And that definition has been extraordinarily resilient in spite of its being arguably anachronistic.

Today the US is multicultural, multilingual, and heading shortly towards a nation with no racial majority. Women are outpacing men in educational attainment, and the economy has evolved to one that is increasingly global and dependent on international trade.  

The skills needed to succeed in today’s economy are vastly different from even half a century ago. Employers say that they want employees with an ability to work with diverse groups, and who speak different languages. They are seeking individuals who are innovative and who can think on their feet.

A person who has memorised the right formula is no longer as desirable as one who can invent a new formula for the problem at hand. Research also tells us that diversity in people and circumstances fosters creativity; bringing different perspectives to a challenge is likely to result in a superior solution.

“Grit” – or the ability to stick with a challenge in spite of long odds (as in the case of many low-income students) – has been shown to predict long-term success.

All this suggests that the individuals most likely to benefit personally and to make the greatest contributions are not necessarily the ones with the highest test scores.

This is not to say that academic acumen or reasoning abilities, such as those tested on college entrance exams, are no longer important. But it does suggest that much more than that is merit-worthy.

The focus on who “deserves” to be admitted also omits a discussion of what students can contribute to the common good.

William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, found in a noteworthy study published in 1998 that under-represented minority students who graduated from highly selective institutions were more likely to contribute to their communities than non-minorities.

This is a finding worth recalling as we revisit, once again, the value of affirmative action.

Patricia Gándara is professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-director of The Civil Rights Project. 


Print headline: More to merit than test scores

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