Despite being born of anti-Semitism, a system that looks beyond exam marks is the best route to true student diversity
One of the best features of US universities is the admissions system - yet in Britain, it would be considered corrupt. American institutions do not necessarily admit the highest scoring examinees. They aim for a "balanced" intake. In practice, this means admitting some males, some females; some whites, some blacks; some nationals, some foreigners; some poor, some middle class; some athletes, some swots; and a leavening of millionaires to help pay for everyone else.
The advantages are obvious. Universities discharge two potentially conflicting obligations: they help engineer social equality while educating the privileged in decency and social responsibility. They break up ghettos of class and race. Really clever young people are shared out among many universities instead of clustering in a few neurosis-inducing hothouses. Nobody can cry unfair when a superficially well-qualified candidate fails to get in. Discrimination is equalised and even the dim - or some of them - are protected from victimisation by the system. The system also protects candidates from shame: if Harvard University rejects you, it does not mean you were too dumb to get in.
Academics stay out of the process. They see the candidates only after admissions professionals have made their selection. Dons in Britain value their last tatters of power too much to forgo their role; but the American way is better. Academics waste no time interviewing and examining. They elude blame for bad decisions. The system drives parents nuts, because no matter how well their children test, they can never be sure of getting them into their first-choice colleges. In other respects, however, the effects are benign. The strategy works. It helps explain why the US has so many enviably good, rich, educationally effective universities.
Yet it started for reasons that can only be called evil. A disquieting book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist Jerome Karabel ( The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Princeton and Yale ) shows how, in the early 20th century, merit-based admission policies unexpectedly ended up favouring Jews. By 1918, 20 per cent of Harvard's freshmen were Jewish. The universities' response was nakedly anti-Semitic. Top colleges' top brass agreed on the need "to prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews".
"We can reduce the number of Jews," wrote Harvard's president in 1922, "by talking about other qualifications than those of academic examinations."
"Manliness" became the watchword, closely followed by criteria that still ripple the language of admissions professionals: "leadership qualities", "character" and "extracurricular activities". The system, born in wickedness, is still open to abuse. At present, exam results consistently favour candidates of Asian origin, but the number of Asians at leading colleges is not growing in proportion. Is this racism? Or is it a sign that the system is working to preserve a universally beneficial balance?
No exam is free of social bias. In America and in Britain, current fashions in examining favour the bourgeois and the boring more than any particular ethnic community: well-coached, biddable young people who "answer the question" rather than harry it, anticipate the mark scheme rather than transcend it and appease examiners rather than challenge them. My university, Tufts, which has raised $25 million (£14 million) for scholarships, has recruited Bob Sternberg from Yale University to help reform admissions. He believes - and can pretty much prove - that if you use rational criteria you can both increase diversity and reward merit. In practice, British universities are being forced into US-style decision-making.
Grade inflation means there are no longer clear means of differentiating between candidates who have top-grade A levels. So interviewers test - albeit without the calibrated formulae used in the US - for other things: vocation, commitment, staying power, open-mindedness, mental suppleness, creativity, collegiality. Sometimes candidly, sometimes unconsciously, they also tend to favour social and cultural diversity. This is startlingly similar to what Harvard anti-Semites in 1922 would have called "talking about character".
Britain can make a virtue of this necessity. Learn from America. Relieve dons of the burden of deciding admissions. Admit that examination point-scoring is not the only valid criterion. Decry the misleading nature of exams as a test of merit. Say that universities do their job best when they pursue a universal vocation, embracing diversity, contributing to a society retooled, reforged for fairness. And acknowledge that millionaires - perhaps especially the dumb ones - need the education and sometimes have a glorious contribution to make.
Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor at Tufts University in the US.