Doctor Cleveland's picture

    The Three Myths of Reverse Racism in College Admissions

    Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the tiny teacher's room of the little parochial school where I taught, talking to a few other people about the news. The principal's administrative assistant said something about affirmative action letting unqualified black students into Harvard, and I asked her if she thought that was a real worry. She actually gasped. "Don't you?" she asked, in shocked disbelief that I could not be concerned, nay scandalized, about such a well-known social problem.

    But I had just graduated from Harvard the year before, and I had never seen these unqualified African-American students that everyone was always talking about. Was Harvard secretly running another secret campus, where they hid all these unqualified minority students people kept mentioning? Or, if the people I had met in college were the supposedly unqualified minority students, why had they kept kicking my ass in chess? It made no sense.

    Where I'd gone to college didn't make any difference to my co-worker, who knew what she knew. After all, everybody knew it. The Unqualified Black Harvard Student was a truth universally acknowledged, something everyone accepted as a proven fact, at least among white people who had never been to Harvard.

    Now it seems the Trump-and-Sessions Justice Department is planning to investigate American colleges and universities for their alleged racist crimes against white applicants. So the Myth of the Unqualified Minority College Student is going to get official government backing, reality be damned.

    This changes the game from the past decades of anti-affirmative lawsuits, which have been brought by private individuals and have traditionally had a plaintiff problem, in that the applicants suing whatever school always turn out to be marginal candidates at best. We can call this the Myth of the Wronged White Genius, a necessary companion to the Myth of the Unqualified Minority. The implication is that there are a number of brilliant white students, who would obviously be accepted immediately into whatever school they apply to except that they have been done wrong by by those Unqualified Minorities. Everyone knows about these people, too: unmistakable stars who would be open-and-shut, slam-dunk admissions cases. But somehow when it's time to sue a college these applicants, the Wronged White Superstars, never show up.

    Instead, the plaintiffs in affirmative action lawsuits are people who either would, at best, squeak in at the bottom of an admitted class (as in the case of Allen Bakke) or, as in the absurd case of Abigail Fisher, a student whose own lawyers had to admit she would not get into the university of her choice even if race were not an issue. Bakke v. California did eliminate quotas; UC Davis Medical School was setting aside 16 of its 100 med-school berths for minority applicants, in a system not terribly different from set-asides schools had reserved for veterans and other favored categories. So even in Bakke's best case for his argument he would be, at the very best, in the bottom 16% of the entering class.

    Now, we have only Allen Bakke's own word that he would have gotten in if not for those 16 slots. He was convinced this was true. But even so, that makes Bakke at the very best 85th out of a hundred. And Bakke would only be 85th if  every single minority applicant were less qualified than Bakke on paper, an assertion with neither facts nor probability on its side. So the heart of Bakke's own claim is that, by his own lights, he should be in the bottom tier of admitted applicants, the 90-something best applicant out of 100.

    Plaintiffs like Bakke (or Grutter, or Gratz) tend to be bubble applicants. Anti-affirmative-action lawsuits, by their basic logic, are about contesting the last slot admitted to a particular program. The argument is, and has to be, that the plaintiff has been done wrong by offering any affirmative action, because the affirmative action applicants booted the plaintiff out of that last available space. So the plaintiff is by definition someone whose best realistic hope was just barely to squeeze under the wire.

    That means even the best anti-affirmative-action plaintiff is someone who might or might not get into a school or program any given year, depending on who else applied. The 96th-best applicant one year might be the 106th-best next year, because every year a different batch of people apply. And we should add that rankings like this don't work out transparently, so that one admissions officer might rank an applicant the 95th best and another admissions officer, equally qualified and equally well-intentioned, might rank the same person 105th.

    The argument isn't just "If not for affirmative action, I would have gotten into medical school." It is, and has to be, "If not for affirmative action I would have just barely made it into medical school." That's not the world's most rousing chorus.

    Lately, anti-affirmative action groups have tried to resort to finding Asian-American plaintiffs, as in this recent piece from the New York Times. Of course, the NYT piece leads off with an apparently very qualified student who is not actually suing Harvard, as the NYT only admits near the bottom of its story. The Times also mysteriously fails to mention that this is not the first time Harvard has been sued over accusations that it should admit more Asian-Americans; we actually know a good deal about Harvard's admissions processes because of discovery from that previous lawsuit. Oh, and Harvard won that earlier lawsuit about this issue, so that might have been something the Times story mentioned, too.

    But in any case, the Asian-American-plaintiff gambit doesn't really advance the case that affirmative action is discrimination against whites. The heart of that argument is that colleges are allegedly depressing the number of Asian-American students, and that someplace like Harvard should be 40% Asian-American instead of a mere 20 to 25%. That would lead to fewer white students, not more. This argument is basically that so-called liberal schools are already discriminating in favor of white applicants.

    Now, the new Department of Justice is going to go for the gusto and claim anti-white discrimination. This may get around the problem of white plaintiffs with mediocre test scores by making the federal government itself the plaintiff and rendering all of the issues more abstract. Instead of arguing in court for a real but not-overwhelmingly-qualified white person, they can make the case about the imaginary wrongs done to all white people and bring the strictly imaginary Wronged White Geniuses, who would be academic stars if not for those pesky minorities, back into the conversation.

    The strongest anti-affirmative-action cases have been against public universities, which are arms of the government. The case that an outside party can dictate the policies of a private university, like Harvard or Yale or your local small liberal-arts college, is a lot murkier. Also, anti-affirmative-action suits have generally, although not always, done better in cases of law or medical school applications instead of undergraduate admissions. This is because professional schools look at a smaller and more quantifiable set of qualifications and leave out murky questions like "character" and "promise."

    That brings us to the third big anti-affirmative action myth, the Myth of the Clear Ranked Order. This is the assumption that every stack of college or grad-school applications can clearly be sorted in order of quality, from #1 to #103 to #19,346. But it never works like that. No healthy college admissions pool is going to have an applicant who is clearly and unambiguously better than everyone else in the pool. (That would be a sign that your school is getting an application from a student it usually couldn't land, so you're probably having recruiting trouble already.) And there's never, ever a clear line demarcating the last applicant who gets in from the first applicant who doesn't. That's always a judgment call, and another committee another year might swap around who just made it and who just missed.

    The more accurate way to think about applicants is in groupings. There's a group you'd be very happy to have, another group that will clearly get in. There's also a group, which you'd always like to be small, of people who have no hope at all of getting in, and a group of people who are okay but who you are clearly not going to find the space for considering who else is in the pool. But these groupings will never coincide perfectly with the number of spaces available. If you have 100 spaces, or 2000 spaces, or 4000 spaces, you are never going to get exactly 100 or 2000 or 4000 applications from people you obviously want to admit and then a sharp drop off to much less qualified people. There will always be a batch of people who might have made it in and might not have.

    This is most obviously true when schools are looking like character, leadership, originality, and so forth, and when they are judging things like extracurricular activities, letters or recommendation, and personal essays. Those things have to be judged qualitatively. Are all those clubs the student is in just resume-padding, or is there something real and interesting going on? In the school orchestra because you think colleges would like that, or because you're really interested in music? That has to be a judgment call, but every admissions office also has to make it.

    But this is also true of academic qualifications. If selective colleges reduced everything to a question of GPAs and scores, they would not be happy with who they got. They would believe that they'd let in some people who weren't actually as smart as many of the people they turned away. (There are colleges, of course, where it is just about grades and scores, but those are schools who aren't finding enough students they want at all; they are simply screening out people who are likely to flunk, and taking everyone else.) Take it from a white kid, with no legacy or athletic preference, who got into Harvard without straight As. Harvard took me over kids with better GPAs, including my own valedictorian and class president, for essentially academic reasons. Now, they may have been mistaken, and you don't have to agree with them. But other admissions offices made a similar mistake about me that year, and there's no sign of any nefarious motive. They just thought I would be a good college student.

    This is all to say that suing a school like Harvard over alleged discrimination against white kids will get murky very fast.  It's not just grades and scores. It's also the classes the students took, the rigor of the school they go to, what their letters of recommendation say, the quality of their essays. You are not going to find that mythical Clear Ranked List running from 1 to 1600 or 1 to 2000. It just does not exist. Now, Harvard and schools like it certainly exploit the murkiness of this process to do what they want with admissions, including giving advantages to athletes and legacies, and even giving special preferences to academically undistinguished children of major donors. (Hint: rhymes with "Mar-ed Bushner.") But they also use that messy, murky process in pursuit of intellectual and academic excellence.

    Now, my high school had a long drought during which we didn't get any applicants into Harvard at all, for something like 25 years, which really stings when you're a school in Massachusetts. It wasn't just my year's valedictorian that they turned down. They turned down years and years of our valedictorians. (I'm happy to say that my old high school now places some students at the Big H every year or two.) So, the year before I got in, some people decided that the only hope was ... affirmative action. A lot of hopes got pinned on one of the school's few (at that time) African-American students, someone whom I will call "Edward." Edward wasn't going to be valedictorian or salutatorian, but he was in the Honors Society, and ... you see where this was going. Some teachers and administrators, and some students, reasoned that although our white A students couldn't get in, a black A- student would. It was the Myth of the Underqualifed Minority, put into practice with the best intentions in the world. Everyone involved genuinely liked him, thought he was smart, and wished him the best.

    Some people believed, as a totally self-evident fact, that Edward's race would make him a lock for admission. Once, when he was fretting about whether or not he'd get in, I heard his best friend tell him, in a get-real-already tone, "Edward. You're black." That simple. (The assumption baked into the Myth of the Unqualified Minority, of course, is that Harvard has to take A- students as the only way to reach its affirmative action goals. I mean, how many black A students could there be in America? No one at my school would have accepted that premise had it been presented to them explicitly. But that's what the Myth of the Unqualified Minority implies.)

    Edward did not get in, of course. He went to another very good school, but he may never have been in serious competition for Harvard. But because so many people around him, including adults, had bought into the Myth of the Underqualified Minority and sold it to him, Edward was set up both for deep disappointment and, worse still, for guilt. After he got rejected, I literally heard him say, "I feel like I let everybody down."

    You didn't let us down, Edward. It was the other way around.



    Excellent article.

    Thank you.

    Has anybody on the cusp but denied admission to a university ever sued because the school admitted the similarly qualified kid of a wealthy donor or other legacy applicant that year? Because if this is not just all about racial resentment, somebody who feels unfairly excluded from an educational opportunity should probably explore every single possibility that somebody took their spot.

    Of course, the reality is that college admissions, and really admissions to anything (including job hiring) is just not pure meritocracy because people are human and fallible and our standards for what constitutes qualifications change all the time anyway.

    Put another way, I doubt any of these people would really be happy in a world where the art were taken out of the admissions, hiring and selections processes of life. I'll be honest and say that I actually do think it was "unfair" that I didn't get into NYU or Yale's graduates programs in dramatic writing as I think I would have done well at them and that their admissions people made a horrible mistake. On the other hand, all the people they did select did well and they only have so many slots so whose was I supposed to get?  Besides, I've gotten all my best jobs and opportunities since based on people's subjective judgments of my personality and abilities, so sometimes life says yes and sometimes it says no and I don't think Jeff Sessions can do much about that.

    Yeah, life happens and like in the most entertaining and addictive games [Like the game of life its own self] it has an element of skill but also an element of luck.  Realizing the difference is important but so is staying in the game when sme bad luck happens. Very good observation you make regarding the Doc's good article, IMO. 

    Yes, in my dotage I'd go further and say 80% luck, 20% skill. Also, I've come to believe the old saying is mostly true that it sucks and then you die, so the addiction starts to wane but it's still there. cheeky  (We don't want the yungins to know this, so they still have hope.)

    Funny, your comment sounds like, I dunno, maybe a playwright who really understands the human condition laugh

    Thanks.  If only I could write it down...

    No, no one ever sues because they think they've been crowded out by legacy students. And no one sues because they've think they've been crowded out by football players, either. It's okay to resent less privileged people, but not more privileged people.

    As for the question of fairness, I know you would have been great at Yale School of Drama or at Tisch. I hear you saying that you think you were qualified, and deserved to get in. What I don't hear you saying is that the people who did get in are undeserving, that they took a spot that "rightfully" belonged to you. That's because you're a healthy person.

    The Yale School of Drama has the best and most sought-after playwriting program in America. The Tisch School of the Arts is also in enormous demand. Both schools get far more talented applicants than they can take. That's what admissions decisions like this are about. It's not about taking the people who are good enough to get in, because there are many more people who are good enough than there are spaces. It's about taking the best class you can assemble out of that talented application pool.

    The healthy way to deal with rejection is to tell yourself (almost always rightly) that you would have done well if you had gotten in, but also to recognize that Yale (or Tisch, or whoever) has lots of great people to choose from. The unhealthy corrosive thing is to blame the people who DID get in, and to claim that they are undeserving.


    Of course, nothing Sessions is doing is going to get anybody into the college of their choice.  It's all just feeding the dark fantasy that worthy whites are having their opportunities taken away. Ironically, such bitterness is probably the worst thing for any individual working on their own fulfillment, but it keeps them voting angry.

    Agreed. The education policy that would really help working-class and lower-middle-class white voters would be restoring funding to the state university systems, which are no longer affordable the way they were for the baby boomers. But we're not talking about really solving anyone's actual problems.

    Talking about admissions policies at fancy colleges is just screwing around and avoiding the big problems. An Ivy League college takes fifteen or sixteen hundred kids a year. Changing the details of who gets in doesn't amount to bupkis.

    There's a certain amount of luck and arbitrary decision making in every profession, especially when there are more applicants than positions. Back when I was a trumpet player and paid attention to the music world there was auditions for a trumpet player for the Chicago Symphony. I certainly wasn't qualified but 275 people thought they were. 275 auditions for one position. One has to figure that even if a single mistake disqualified someone there still must have been 5 or 10 that played an absolutely perfect audition. How does one objectively choose between them? In the end part of the decision must be arbitrary. I imagine there were discussions about trivia. The increase in volume over that crescendo seemed a little extreme to me or it wasn't quite enough. One might have been eliminated for having a bit of stomach gas and burping once while holding a sustained note. Sooner or later everyone is going to burp once every few years and make a mistake in concert. Bad luck that the once every few year burp happened during the audition. In the end there is no standard that can be perfectly objective and no decision making process that results in a perfect meritocracy.

    eta: On the other side of this coin when most symphony orchestras instituted blind auditions with the performer behind a curtain the number of women passed from preliminary auditions to the final round increased by double digits and the number of women eventually hired increased by a large amount. Even within this supposed meritocracy there must have been at least some unconscious sexism.

    It's okay to resent less privileged people, but not more privileged people.

    Actually, Americans have a long history of resenting privileged people. And speaking from personal experience, I and many of my classmates at Williams did resent legacy kids and athletes who seemed intellectually shallow or academically deficient. (There was a major fundraising drive for the bicentennial, and it was rumored that the administration beefed up the sports teams to put the alumni in a giving mood.)

    But...while there may be resentment against privilege, there are no laws against it, so there is no basis for a lawsuit. There are laws against racial discrimination, however. If you were able to demonstrate systematic discrimination by an institution that accepts federal funds, you would win the case--even if you were a marginal candidate. In this sense, critics of affirmative action are logically consistent. If the race preferences were reversed--say white students given preference over black students--a comparable lawsuit would and should be successful.

    The critics' error is misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) the nature of racism. Racism involves negative stereotyping and exclusion based on assumptions of inferiority. Seeking diversity isn't racism. Denigrating and stereotyping minorities who attend top colleges as "affirmative action babies" is racism.

    You're right, of course. Let me rephrase: a lot of modern "conservatism" is about focusing anger and resentment toward less privileged instead of more privileged targets.

    Allen Bakke, who felt that minorities had kept him out of medical school, may have had a real and valid age-discrimination case to make. (UC Davis may have considered him too old to start medical school at 35.) But that's not the case he took to court. He took the case that minorities had robbed him to court.

    Yes, I think every exclusive college has some sotto voce grumbling about the weaker legacy students. But those complaints don't become a vocal public program. The anti-affirmative action program is an established and public enterprise in which some people have invested substantial funding. There aren't non-profits dedicated solely to uprooting legacy privilege, but people have spent their coin to fund more than one non-profit to kill affirmative action.



    Let me rephrase: a lot of modern "conservatism" is about focusing anger and resentment toward less privileged instead of more privileged targets.

    Very well put.

    on the other hand, there's the whole anti-"cosmopolitans" thing.

    (Peracles' news thread on that here.)

    Besides a flashy cocktail, isn't a cosmopolitan a neonliberal in disguise?

    Good point, as a conservative would of course naturally be against any liberal. That said, I don't think anyone can argue that cosmopolitan liberal thing is also neatly tied up with the elitely educated coastal urbans thing.  And very precisely countering that is Trump populism. (Cohorts of which are conveniently in denial of Goldman Sachs Kushner et. al. populating the Trump circle. Scaramuchi-type behavior assures a myth that they must truly be gangstas at heart, the right kind of billionaire, and not Yale/Harvard types, or Trump wouldn't be hanging with them.) Make no mistake: elite college education is looked down upon by many of the types that became Trump fans, it's not a new thing, it's common in pop culture like movies for a long time. The Yale/Harvard guy that doesn't know how to use a nail and hammer, and is not street smart but thinks he knows how to nanny state everyone else. Edit to add: And is, of course, a friend to globalism, learned to be pro multi-culti in those very same colleges and therefore contributing to the death of the U.S.

    They'll just kill student loans and college supports. That'll make white rural happy. Maybe build a wall with the savings.

    Bravo! Someone who not only gets it, but can explain it to a five year old!

    Thanks, Danny! Glad you liked it!

    LoserDoc too bad u made up phony Harvard story-still stuck in your infested parochial den!! @RealDonaldTrump
    Trump Univ would have taught you to be a winner like me! stop crying like a baby! @RealDonaldTrump
    Now you judge my fantastic MAGA policies! totally unfair to me and my election victory! @RealDonaldTrump

    No way to argue with that, I guess.

    Very interesting piece Doc. 

    In the NYT piece from a couple of days ago, they mention the fact that the real affirmative action happening during admissions is in favor of male candidates, since the female candidates are overall better on the basic grades and activities criteria. 

    That got me thinking about how this works out in countries where admissions decisions depend almost exclusively on grades. Take the UK, where women now outnumber men at universities to such a degree that respectable voices are calling for measures to encourage specifically poor white men to enter university. Take Denmark, where women make up 60% of the undergraduate student population and 65% in the more competitive fields like medicine that require higher grades to get in (total numbers "samlet optag" at the top of the table). I thought the gender divide would be even higher, frankly, given the almost hysterical debate in DK about the "number 12 girls", that being the almost exclusively female population that get straight A's coming out of high school. Now they are debating whether to add a quota for male candidates who don't make the grade.

    Compare that to the US, with a 57% female college population, and only 47% in medicine school. Of course, in the US there already is such a quota-based system to allow admission for more unqualified male candidates in some unofficial form. It would be good to have someone bring this issue to the supreme court, or broaden the Abigail Fisher case to see if Texas and other states don't unfairly tip the scales in favor of boys. Take Harvard, which bizarrely has only a 50.9% female student population, or Princeton with a suspiciously low 48% female population. Where are the Abigail Fisher's prying into the seemingly biased admission criteria at these schools?

    I say all this, not because I think that time will be out of joint until all the top universities admit only the most academically successful students at the time of application (fwiw I would think that to be a bad idea), but because all the people who feel so hard done by in the current system, might perk up and listen, and be more constructive in debating what our institutions of higher learning are for, if they realize the victims of the system aren't who they think they are. 

    More broadly, I find it silly to focus the debate on that one act of affirmation at the particular point in time at which admission to college is decided. The broader affirmative action that richer and whiter kids receive, in terms of a better pre-university education and mentoring and encouragement and general education-conducive environment, vastly outweighs what small consideration the admission officer may give to the diversity factor. My nephews in the Bay area will get into one or another elite college, not because they are supremely gifted and driven, but because they live in an affluent neighborhood where they ride their bikes to their spanking new school building with their overqualified enthusiastic teachers offering unlimited AP classes and SAT prep and guidance counsellors and after school tutors and summer internships at Pixar. Meanwhile my sister used to volunteer as a teacher at a school down the road in Marin City, but seemed to spend much of her time just counselling kids going through trauma in their private lives, beit poverty, crime or drug-related. 

    Who "should" Harvard admit? A couple more gifted mentally bullet-proof kids out of Marin City or some well-adjusted above average white boys? It's not a terribly hard question. Nor is it, to me, a terribly central question. It's like arguing about whether to add lettuce to a big fat turd sandwich. 

    It's true, Obey. Women are at a disadvantage at nearly every college, because colleges are trying to keep their male/female ratio in "balance." Colleges are afraid that if they let their incoming classes become too female-heavy that it will drive away applications. That's both a real practical concern (it could happen, and if you're the school doing that while others don't, you might pay the price) and exactly the logic that has led to some ugly discrimination in the past. (Schools did limit the number of Jewish students they accepted, for fear that beyond a certain tipping point it would drive other students, the traditional bluebloods, away.)

    Geography is also an enormous factor in selective admissions, which never gets talked about at all. But the elite-college admissions process is organized geographically. The applicant pool is divided by regions, right from the start, and you're competing against the other kids in your region. (Some schools, including Harvard, give the fancy Eastern prep schools their own spearate region. My high school was one town over from the prep school where the Bushes went, but I wasn't competing with those kids.)

    So there's a real advantage to being an applicant from an area where a college is getting fewer applications, and a disadvantage to applying from an area where lots of people apply. It's good to be from West Virginia or Wyoming. It's not so good to be from Long Island or the Philly suburbs. Plenty of kids still get in from Long Island and the Main Line, and the kids admitted from Wheeling or Bozeman are perfectly qualified, but it's not really a level playing field.

    Colleges are afraid that if they let their incoming classes become too female-heavy that it will drive away applications.

    Sorry to be crass but... these people did NOT get what I was thinking about on my way to college.

    Not to be rude, but they're afraid of driving away the girls.

    I'm from NZ, which is one of those places where university admissions are almost entirely based on academic achievement. The only exceptions I know about relate to things like architecture or art which have portfolios, and urban planning which I have heard has an essay. There is, in fact, a nationally set minimum level you have to meet (UE) but generally you need to do better than that. The largest university, for example, has a thing called a rank score... and if you beat the rank score, you're in. It doesn't matter how many other students do so: it's guaranteed entry. (Actually, if you ask me, getting into university isn't a challenge at all, assuming you're not worried about failing at school.)

    But the thing to note is that NZ also operates a national exam competition known as Scholarship. There are several issues with how this works, but the basic idea is you pay a fee to enter and if you pass, you get some money. If you pass a lot or particularly well, you get more money. And if you do really well across sufficiently many Schol papers, then you get fabulously rewarded. These are not particularly easy exams. For example, I tried three (at the time you could try three for free) and wasn't confident of passing any, despite thinking very carefully about which three. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I just passed one and just failed another.

    The thing with Scholarship is that it works from the same curriculum that is assessed by a thing called NCEA (it is a bit complex to explain), although it is open to people who do CIE or IB too. Hence, you would expect the female advantage noted in NCEA would be repeated in Scholarship, right? With NCEA of girls who could get UE, 68.7% do whereas the comparable figure for boys is 57% (pg. 20) and 17.4% of girls versus 11.2% of boys getting NCEA Level 3 with Excellence (i.e. doing very well), all for final year pupils. However, with Scholarship 23.4% of female candidates pass versus 25.1% of male candidates. Similarly, on top of those percentages, for the outstanding passes the figures of 2.1% and 3.6% respectively (not all Schol candidates will be final year, but most will be). What's going on?

    To be honest, I don't know why the reversal happens. It could be like the Simpson's Paradox UC Berkeley thing and female candidates disproportionately go for more competitive Schol subjects (which, I feel, is consistent with there being more female candidates) or that relatively more boys are like me and only pick fights we think we might win rather than being more daring. It could be that the distribution of female candidates has a smaller range, i.e. there are fewer candidates out in the "successful" tail relative to boys. My gut feeling/extremely guessing interpretation of the table on pg.74 suggests that if you can do well at English, maths (calculus and/or statistics), biology, chemistry and physics you're a typical very top candidate. We might wonder if some of these subjects have a male bias (if more boys take these and they synergise well then we'd expect more boys). But to reiterate I don't know and while NZQA might provide data to help look at these questions, it's not in the pdf (they're very transparent so if you care enough to ask they might hook you up).

    (Another possible explanation is that there are some truly enormous all boys schools in NZ which cater to a socio-economically advantaged subsection of society, and that I do hear about structured programmes intended to generate scholarship passes. These, for example, did not exist at my school, and I doubt existed at the local private school either... as far as I know, only that school's dux attempted Schol in our year, probably because they're a CIE school.)

    The point I am making, though, is that looking at a selection of universities and expecting the general pattern to be true is flawed. Princeton might have a mere 48% simply because they can only admit applicants they receive, and of those applicants there are disproportionately many "academically able" boys. I think I do presuppose either a bunch of dumb males or greater variability in male academic achievement, but the idea is that if you're sufficiently exclusive you might end up with the same number of males and females who meet your minimum standards.

    Anyway, I'm not sure how relevant this has been to your post but I've already written it so... I guess I will leave with my thoughts on the difficulty of determining to what demographics the admissions of a university should converge.

    Since it appears to be my role to be the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, I might as well embrace it.  Here is a very slightly edited copy of most of one of my responses to the comments to my two year old piece Maybe Divestment is the Answer:


    Can you empathize with economically struggling white students who are denied entry into elite institutions in favor of sometimes more affluent applicants of color with lower scores and grades?  Do you believe affirmative action is likely to unify or divide poor, working, and middle class people across racial lines?

    I think affirmative action is a very tough issue.  I understand the arguments in favor of it. I do believe our institutions of higher learning should reflect the demographics of society at large.  But I also believe that applying different standards for different groups of people is inherently divisive.  I also believe that places in our elite universities and colleges should be reserved for those who have demonstrated the most academic talent and aptitude.  This can include, of course, overcoming difficult obstacles.  Cal Berkeley and CalTech claim to be colorblind when it comes to admissions.  Their student bodies are 40% Asian.  Perhaps that's the way it should be.

    To me the solution ultimately has to be to reduce economic injustice period.  This means, regardless of what college, if any, you attend: You will never be homeless.  You will never be without health care.  You will never be without healthy nutritious food and your children will always be able to attend good schools that will prepare them to be whatever they have the talent and inclination to be.  You will also never become a billionaire.  You can become successful beyond your wildest dreams but that success will never translate into so much aggregated wealth that you can pervert our democratic system.

    And do you think the struggling white student doesn't have space in that motivation letter to describe that struggle? Do you think admissions isn't looking for signs that 1 student will try harder than another, and the grit to get past hurdles gives an idea past usual resume-flowering? We're talking about evaluating complex human beings, and an SAT or class scores hardly give a reasonable all-encompassing metric to assess. Plus, part of running a college should be looking at the collective, not just individuals - trying to create an environment that for one helps reflect the people and challenges you'll meet in the real world, and NOT the famed ivory tower that's always scoffed at.

    As Doc seemed to note, somehow these wonderful diamonds in the rough never seem to be the ones who are actually complaining about admissions. Rather, it's the slacker skimming in with no compelling narrative to justify those last contentious spots. (and in any system, there will be more of a fight and uncertainty at the lower rungs than at the higher).

    Hi Hal. I'm embarrassed to read my own two year old comments in "Divestment is not the answer" and thinking "I wish I were as smart as that guy- oh, I am that guy".

    I could disagree with your last paragraph today but I've gradually accepted the idea that I should stay

    with the  main theme.  Particularly as with  Doctor Cleveland when it was established so elegantly. 

    Having   gone to  a college with around 200  students ,expanded to @ a thousand to capitalize on  the 1947 wave of GI Bill applicants I'm pretty unmoved by the complaints of those who feel they were deprived of entrance to some Ivy clad institution  due to  legacies, reverse racism or the infractions of the solar arrays.

     I do  think everyone is entitled to the good things that go with a good education   where-ever that happens. 

    In my case that good thing happened at  2 am when I knocked on Fr. Paulin's door  when I'd  made the last delivery of copy for the school newspaper. No requirement but his light was on and I felt like speaking to somebody after  4 miles below-zero .He waved me in -as I could see through the pipe smoke- and after some idle  discussion of the exact temperature  he said he occasionally checked  dormitory rooms when we were at class and he was disappointed in the books next to my bed. Offended- I was reading "The Late George Apley"- I said "why".

    He mumbled something to the effect of 'challenging myself'.

    "So what should I be reading? " I asked somewhat annoyed, 

    "I don't make lists" he replied and we went back and forth until -he made a list.

    Mauriac's "Vipers' Tangle"or "Woman of the Pharisees" or maybe one of those was by Leon Bloy , Bernanos'  "Diary of a Country Priest" ,Greene's "The Heart of the Matter ",  "The Brothers' Karamazov ".

    Hitchhiking home in June I spent the night with a friend -at Harvard- and showed him the list. He laughed.

     " Trouble with that " he said correctly   " is you won't be able to go back to the books you're reading now".  

    No one is entitled to go to Princeton or Berkeley. Or needs to and needs to incur a ton of student debt to do that.. They are just  entitled to go somewhere where they can meet their Fr. Paulin.Or. Doc Cleveland. Or Hal.

    Many thanks for the kind words Flavius.

    Thanks, HSG. I'm certainly behind admitting more economically disadvantaged students, and giving those students more help.

    But why is that being framed as an either/or choice, either the racial minorities OR the working-class white kids? I am not trying to pick on you: this is how the choice is always framed.

    But that isn't the real choice colleges face. Schools don't have to choose between minorities and poor whites. They could recruit both. They could recruit neither. And there's never been any evidence -- I mean, no evidence at all - that taking away preferences from one of those groups would mean more for the other. Why would it?

    (I don't believe that getting rid of affirmative action would help disadvantaged white kids, or that the people funding these lawsuits intend it to. I think getting rid of affirmative action in admissions would help Thurston Howell IV.)

    Also, it can be frustrating when a discussion of affirmative action for minorities turns to "well, what about economic disadvantage?" argument without any reference to the pretty public steps many elite schools have recently taken precisely to reach out to economically disadvantaged students. The Harvards and Yales have not been shy about those initiatives, but we keep having the discussion as if they haven't happened.

    To stick to the Harvard example (not because it's the most important, but because so much is known about their admissions processes), they HAVE been giving admissions advantages to economically underprivileged kids since long before race-based affirmative action. There are literally two different kinds of underprivileged students who get extra consideration, both an attempt to admit more rural poor kids and more inner-city poor kids.

    Thanks Doc for this comment and let me also thank you for an elegant and thought-provoking piece.  I do want to try to answer the question that you asked me:

    "But why is that being framed as an either/or choice, either the racial minorities OR the working-class white kids?"

    Because 1) many individuals are competing for entry into elite institutions that can determine whether they will or will not jump from the bottom 60% to the top of the economic ladder.   2) It serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful when poor, working, and middle-class Americans fight with each other over the allocation of limited extremely valuable slots rather than unite politically to demand a much more equitable redistribution of resources.

    Very much agreed. But I would humbly suggest that it is the framing itself, and not anything that is actually happening, that pits less-privileged groups against each other.

    Selective can ledges are not actually choosing between minorities and working-class whites. Neither of those groups gains from the other's loss or loses by the other's gains. But it is persistently presented, inaccurately, as either/or, so that for example any attempt to recruit working-class whites is presented 1) as if no such efforts existed already and 2) as someting to do INSTEAD OF, rather than in addition to, recruiting minorities.

    I guess we disagree here.  Assuming that the University of Michigan has 4,000 first-year slots and 30,000 applicants who are judged solely by grades, test scores, and other reasonably objective criteria, then the 30,000 are locked in fierce competition each against the other.  But, If Michigan sets soft targets for the percentage of whites, Asians, blacks, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, first peoples, and others who will comprise the class, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that the groups themselves are pitted against each other for a very scarce and valuable resource.

    Again, your problem is concluding that two disadvantaged groups are in a two-way, zero-sum competition, rather than in a multi-sided competition where both can win and both can lose.

    Well, it is zero-sum in a sense isn't it?  When it comes to any particular college or university or say the Ivy League collectively, there are a limited number of slots.  If more slots go to whites, then there are fewer for Asians and blacks.

    No. If for example a whites-only campus is seen as too elite and not worldly enough, interest in college can fall and the school may go into decline. If a school with exacting but diverse standards is seen as vibrant and dynamic, resources like donations, better professors, new facilities and more admissions slots can grow. Think wider. Llook up the word "coopetition"

    Yes. Look up "cooptition."

    And again, the game has more than two players. Minorities AND disadvantaged white kids can win together, or lose together.

    Also, try using real numbers. There aren't only 4000 seats at Michigan. There are 7000, and they offer admission to nearly 16,000 in order to get 7000 to come.

    I bring this up because your picked-from-the-air numbers cut Michigan's real admissions rate in half. A. 28% or 29% admissions rate is tough, but it's not 13%.

    Okay but my bottom-line rationale remains unchanged.

    unite politically to demand a much more equitable redistribution of resources.

    "Demanding" this of private institutions? Just a reminder that people and institutions who have money can spend that money as they wish. Seems to me you are getting into arguing as if all are taxpayer-funded institutions and everyone has an equal right to the "resources" they provide. Quite a stretch from basic laws our country has enacted designed to prevent private entities from practicing discrimination based on race or gender alone.

    The Harvard's and Yale's make a student body according to what they think is best for them and their mission, as do right-wing conservative Christian colleges, it's just that simple. It's fun to argue about how we all might do better what they are trying to do, but it can't be "demanded".

    P.S. What makes an elite college elite?

    Groucho Marx's famous joke applies: I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.

    The demarcation between public tax funded colleges and private colleges is not as clear as you imply. There's student loans and grants as well as tax breaks and other funding. There is a big discussion that's been going on for years among religious schools about whether they should accept the funding and tax breaks as the diversity rules that accompany the money would interfere with religious decisions. The plan so far seems to be the religious organizations accept the money then claim the conditions tied to the money impinge on their religious freedom.

    absolutely, but the problem there is to get them to admit they have become semi-public and be subject to public good demands or reject the money.

    My point and Groucho's still stands: what makes elite elite is that it is elite! You get into a place that not everyone can.

    P.S. Flavius' wise comments upthread and his recent blog are an important perspective on all this; people invest too much promise and belief into that whole elite college or club thing, when life is really more of crap shoot. You can get an elite education outside an elite college if you really want it. And it is a guarantee of nothing as well.

    Remember the " Great Books" ? At Robert Hutchin's Chicago and  several other mid- century campuses instead of keeping your "eyes on the prize" of that fast  track  through Goldman, Sachs you were exposed to the concerns and the  conclusions of the smartest people who ever  left behind a record of how they had tried to make sense of the world.

    How did that work out? 

    I knew a couple of them. And I wish they were here to talk about it Or more precisely I wish they were here to talk about anything because they were interesting and  just good folks.

    .Maybe they sadly discovered there's  no market for philosophers. Or  maybe they were in such demand that they never had  time to be philosophical.

    Or  maybe they found there's no demand for philosophers . And  were philosophical about that..



    Hutchin, Adler, Barr, and others, promoted their program not only to influence the minds of elites but to change the nature of universal education. The emphasis in education on making students competent at particular occupations can only be counter balanced by the growth of an intellectual Commons:

    Yet the substitution of machines for slaves gives us an opportunity to build a civilization as glorious as that of the Greeks, and far more lasting because far more just. I do not concede that torpor of mind is the natural and normal condition of the mass of mankind, or that these people are necessarily incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, or of conceiving generous, noble, and tender sentiments, or of forming just judgments concerning the affairs of private and public life. If they are so, and if they are so as a result of the division of labor, then industrialization and democracy are fundamentally opposed; for people in this condition are not qualified to govern themselves. I do not believe that industrialization and democracy are inherently opposed. But they are in actual practice opposed unless the gap between them is bridged by liberal education for all. That mechanization which tends to reduce a man to a robot also supplies the economic base and the leisure that will enable him to get a liberal education and to become truly a man.


    Rather than merely throwing bread on the water I checked out the St. Johns' web site and they are still doing business at the same old stand(s) in Annapolis and Santa Fe.

    'My personal contact with that approach was limited to one Political Science  class. The professor had graduated  from Hutchins' Chicago. Been initially a conscientious objector in  WWll  , ultimately rethinking his position and serving. . I think in the coast guard, I think on Nantucket. So inevitably I associate him with Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard on Nantucket." 

    I visited him once, half way up a mountain. They grew much  of their food, made their own butter-which had a liturgical symbol on it. The whole family played recorders by themselves and also with some compatible types down the other side of the mountain (they walked) Had no radio or phonographs because of some objection to "artificial" music.

    Not as unworldly as that suggests . He went into politics and became the minority leader in the State House.

    Then  a college president




    It just struck me keeping up with the discussions on this thread that elite schools are about creating a community and then selling it to others who would like to be in it.

    I never had any choice of college (I was too young, the eldest so the first, had to do it on my own, my parents had zero money and too many kids, there was no use in even trying for anything else, couldn't find any scholarships that applied to me,  the state college was excellent (UW) and not super expensive back then, I didn't qualify for any aid but there were loans.)

    But it hits me now I've seen boomer friends going through looking at colleges with their kids and they go visit the campuses and would check out not just the education on offer but the student body, the environment and the housing and the amenities and sports and activities and rules, they are just really shopping for a community. That private schools are about selling a community of students and teachers to the appllcants.

    And yes, it is just like Goldman Sachs life like you mention. The kid sees that and he wants to be in it, that's the life he wants. Well, it's a club and maybe they think you are a good fit as a member and maybe they don't.

    In the end, the elite colleges, they are not any different in trying to create a certain type of community than other intellectual clubs/communes like the Bloomsbury Group  or an artist's colony like Byrdcliffe As well as clubs that a lot of us have a bad attitude about now, like fancy country clubs, or the local Italian social club. What Yale or Harvard or some Christian School accepts as its student body at some point in time is just marketing. If they are very desirable and have a lot of applicants, that means they have done a good job of selling the idea of that community to the public. Strikes me as an important way that culture gets made. So yes, we want to argue and pressure the most popular ones to change this way or that, and that's fine to put that pressure on them, it's part of the process. But at the same time, it just shouldn't be heavily regulated by law, that would ruin the whole process of how culture gets created. Except for blatant stupid things like exclusion for race or gender. (And even that is problematic, i.e., do we really want to regulate that all private schools be mixed gender?)

    Groucho's joke still applies for me, very much so. It's got to be a desirable community for anyone to even be interested in arguing about it.


    And what other clubs costing $100-250k would be worth that time and expense? The military *pays* people to enjoy their community. How many years as an artist is that kind of money, considering rent, food, materials?

    Well, I think there's two people who don't find those kind of prices worth it: Flavius and I. Beyond that I can't say.

    And FWIW, if I was going to agitate about making some of these clubs different, both private and public, I'd be on the whole sports thing,  in trying to make it less valuable in the offerings of higher education, sell that somewhere else.

    But I'm too old to get all het up about the bread and circuses thing.

    Edit to add: Furthermore, I suspect the whole Ivy League thing will be worth much less in a very short amount of time. They might even be begging for students in a couple decades. We have massive culture change hanging in the air.

    Like dead carcasses on tenterhooks?

    the point really struck me already a couple years back when a so-called "fancy" (by colleagues) midtown lawyer, a 60-something, who is also known as a quite a leader in the Manhattan Jewish community, told me: "nobody is impressed by  an Ivy League education anymore". The climbing, it's changed already.

    Latest Comments