Burn Down the Admissions System
The end of affirmative action is an opportunity to overhaul a deeply unjust system. Instead, colleges are likely to double down on its worst aspects.
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A few years ago, I listened to Jim Yong Kim, then the President of the World Bank, address the Milken Global Conference, a gathering that is about as plutocratic as it sounds. At the start of his remarks, Kim told the multimillionaires and billionaires who made up the bulk of the audience an anecdote, which he seemed to consider charming, about how he got his job.
One day, while Kim was still in his previous job as the President of Dartmouth College, his assistant informed him of an unexpected phone call from Tim Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury. Kim immediately reached for a pen. Naturally, he said, he expected that Geithner would ask for some nephew or family friend of his to get special consideration in the admissions process, and Kim wanted to be ready to jot down the applicant’s name. But to his astonishment, that wasn’t the case: Geithner was actually calling to see whether he might be interested in running the World Bank! (Cue appreciative chuckles from the audience.)
What was remarkable about this anecdote is just how normalized these forms of influence-peddling are in America’s elite. It didn’t seem to occur to Kim that he might in any way be impugning Geithner’s reputation by suggesting that he would use the stature afforded by his high office to influence Dartmouth’s admissions decisions on behalf of his friends and associates; nor did Kim think that he himself might be self-incriminating by telling a large audience that he would readily accede to such a request.
Whatever one’s views about the justice or the injustice of affirmative action—a topic that we shall discuss ad nauseam over the coming months—one thing is clear: Thursday’s Supreme Court rulings, which render illegal the admissions practices in which most elite colleges now engage, would be a golden opportunity to burn America’s whole corrupt, baroque, shameful admissions system to the ground.
Colleges are bound by law and decency to comply with the Supreme Court; if their leaders claim for themselves the moral authority to evade the court’s instructions, as many have insinuated in the messages they have sent to their students, staff, and faculty over the past 24 hours, they would effectively claim the right to place their judgment over the law. It would also be yet another step down a path that is much more risky for the long-term success of American universities than they seem to recognize. For if the right-leaning half of America’s population comes to see Harvard and Princeton, Stanford and Yale as enemies, these world-leading institutions will eventually lose their federal funding and tax-protected status—and start to decline.
But if colleges must, against the will of most of their leaders, stop engaging in affirmative action, they should also stop engaging in the blatantly unjust practices that now make up the overall system. No more legacy admissions. No more special consideration for the children of donors. Heck, no more admitting people for their promise as a striker or a shortstop or a first violinist for the university orchestra.
Instead, it is already becoming clear that most elite colleges are likely to choose a very different course of action: They will hold onto legacy admissions. They will hold onto athletic admissions. They will keep giving the children of donors—or the family friends of Treasury Secretaries—special consideration. And they will exploit a loophole created by the new Supreme Court ruling to the max, raising the prospect that some of the worst aspects of the admissions process could actually be amplified, rather than attenuated, over the course of the coming years.
The majority decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard argues that admissions programs at elite schools like Harvard and the University of North Carolina “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points.” Therefore, it concludes, “those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause.”
But in the very next sentence, the court goes on to suggest a place for universities to refocus their diversity efforts: “At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” In other words, any university that wants to test the limits of how much de facto affirmative action it can get away with will now have a big incentive to make imprecise and easily gameable metrics like personal statements even more central to the admissions process than they already are.
The problem with personal statements is not that experiences of genuine hardship, including racial injustice, might not be powerfully formative; it is that personal statements are a prime example of everything that is wrong with the wider admissions system. Their strength is utterly subjective; the ability to craft a good statement is strongly correlated with cultural capital and a high socioeconomic status; and rich parents can outsource the effort to unscrupulous admissions consultants, like those caught up in the Varsity Blues scandal.
Whenever I think of the role that personal statements play in America’s landscape of higher education, I remember a classmate of mine at Cambridge. He came from an aristocratic family, grew up in London, and attended Eton. He was, in other words, about as privileged as you can be in the United Kingdom. But when it came time to apply for admission to a prestigious scholarship that would send him to Harvard, he wrote movingly about how his passion for public policy was awakened when he grew up among the ravages of the troubles in Northern Ireland; at one point, he suggested, his house was even bombed. (Those who knew him realized that this was one of his family’s ancestral castles, not his primary family home, a fact he obviously omitted from his application.)
These kinds of absurdities are not a bug of the strange American reverence for personal statements; they are a feature of it. The ability of admissions committees to distinguish inspiring stories of genuine hardships from self-exoticizing stories that bend the truth is at best dubious. And the impact of the implicit mandate for self-exoticization may be especially pernicious when it comes to race.
The majority opinion in Fair Admissions v. Harvard rightly points out that the system it just ruled illegal stereotypes racial minorities: Colleges assume that students from a particular racial group must have an opinion that is somehow typical of that group, such that their presence on campus can create the educational benefit of diversity (which, until Thursday, served as the legal justification for the practice of affirmative action). But the new system will effectively require students to self-stereotype: to gain admission, Latino and African-American students will now have a huge incentive to conceive of themselves in racial terms, emphasizing (whether or not it happens to be true) how their experiences as a Latino or as an African-American have shaped their “quality of character.”
Perhaps I will, for once, turn out to be overly pessimistic about America’s propensity to stumble into the worst possible timeline. If universities are too blatant in their attempts to ignore the spirit of Thursday’s ruling, future court decisions could curtail their ability to make the personal essay, one of the most arbitrary and subjective factors considered in admissions, even more central to a student’s future prospects. Or, far better, university presidents could, after all, seize the opportunity to make radical changes to a system that is broken in many more ways than one.
I hope so. But I’m not optimistic.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion and the author of the The Identity Trap, forthcoming from Penguin Press.
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