Within days or weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on the future of affirmative action in the Supreme Edition. If all goes as expected, conservatives will rejoice as these policies are rescinded — and progressives will whine.
But maybe we can all take this moment to reimagine the college admissions process itself, which has turned out to be one of the truly destructive institutions of American society.
The age of modern college admissions was launched more than half a century ago with the best of intentions—to transform the final schools of the Puritan institution into talent factories for all comers. But in the end, elite universities have only replaced one privileged elite with another. Today, you don’t need bloodlines that stretch to the Mayflower to have a good chance of getting into an elite school, but you do need to be born into a family that has the resources to make a generous investment in your early education.
In 2017, research led by Raj Shetty found that students from families in the top 1 percent of earners were 77 times more likely to be accepted into the Ivy League than students from families earning less than $30,000 a year. In the same year, the University of North Carolina, a public school, had 16 times more students from the top-earning quintile than students from the bottom quintile.
We now have entire industries that take elite school attendance as an indicator of whether or not you should be hired. So the hierarchies built by the admissions committees are replicated across the community. America has become a nation in which an educated elite few marry each other, send their children to the same exclusive schools, move to the same affluent neighborhoods and pass down unequal economic and cultural power from generation to generation – the meritocracy of Brahmins.
As Harvard University’s Michael Sandel has argued, meritocratic culture gives “winners” the illusion that this sorting mechanism is fair and deterministic and that they earn whatever they get.
Then we sat wondering why the Trumpian populists are rebelling.
Even worse, this system is built on a definition of “merit” that is absolutely insane. In what sane world would we rank people — often for life spans — based on their ability to satisfy a teacher from ages 15 to 18?
In 2018, organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote a powerful article for The Times noting that “academic excellence is not a strong predictor of job excellence. Across industries, research shows that the relationship between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a few years “.
We could have chosen to categorize people on the basis of creativity, generosity, or flexibility. We could have chosen to promote students who are passionate about one subject but fall behind in others (which is how success works in real life). But instead, we’ve created this academic pressure pot that hurts people from the wrong kind of families and leaves even straight winners stressed, depressed, and exhausted.
Over the past few decades, Richard Kahlenberg, author of The Cure: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, has been arguing that we must replace the system of affirmative action based on race with one based on class.
His proposal, to give preference to applicants from economically disadvantaged families, would address basic inequalities in society. As Kahlenberg wrote in The Economist in 2018, social science research “today is discovering that being economically disadvantaged in America is seven times as large an impediment to student achievement as race.”
Moreover, he continues, if you build the programs well, you can lift up the poor and the middle class while correcting the injustices that African Americans have historically suffered. In his book Dissent this year, Kahlenberg, an expert witness for plaintiffs in the case seeking to overturn the affirmative action, describes an exercise he had with Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono. Based on data from Harvard and the University of North Carolina, they built an admissions model that would finalize the preferences and ethnicities of the children of faculty and alumni, but enhance applicants from poor families and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
At Harvard, under this model, the share of African American, Hispanic, and other underrepresented minority students would rise, and the share of first-generation students would more than triple.
The argument for Kellenberg’s proposal is getting stronger every year. If the Supreme Court abandons racial preferences, it becomes overwhelming.
Perhaps this is a moment when we finally step back and acknowledge that elite meritocracy has spiraled out of control. It is ironic that we have built a culture in which people make a fine distinction of statuses between Princeton, Northwestern, and Pennsylvania as if they were eighteenth-century courtiers arguing over which aristocratic family had the greatest name.
It is ironic that we have built a system that overvalues the kind of technocratic skills these universities cultivate and undervalues the social and ethical skills that any healthy society should value most.
Sadly, we’ve spent decades trying to build a more representative leadership class, but we’ve ended up with an educated elite that doesn’t know much about the rest of America and doesn’t seem significantly more competent than the elites that preceded it.
If SCOTUS ruptures the Band-Aid positive action, perhaps we can treat the underlying wounds.