We had a rollicking debate over whether race should be a factor in college admissions, tied to the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue this year.
I am not sure if the debate was that fruitful, given how few people understand that colleges do not now and will never admit students solely on highest GPAs and test scores. Colleges seek a diverse student body because they believe that a wide range of backgrounds and experiences enriches their campuses and their students. And few students want to be surrounded by classmates who look, sound and act just like them.
Here is an inside view of the issue from Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor at George Washington University. I thought he made some interesting points that were worth sharing.
This is an excerpt from his piece on Bloomberg: (Before commenting, try to read his full essay.)
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.
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.
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.
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog