We take stock of the part of the Harvard admissions ruling that doesn’t deal with race-based admissions. (At least not on the surface.)

Merit, Merit Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Debates about meritocracy and college are in the air this fall.

Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in Harvard’s favor. Here’s a good summary in Vox about the case and what’s next (it’s probably headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.) The New York Times has 5 Takeaways From The Ruling. And if you want even more context, check out Adam Harris in The Atlantic on how affirmative action has already been curtailed. (Harvard Won This Round, but Affirmative Action Is Weak).

The case may eventually have important implications for the use of race in admissions, but this week I was most interested by a section late in the decision where Judge Burroughs wrestled with the issue of “ALDCs.” That’s the acronym used to describe recruited athletes, legacies, applicants on the dean’s or director’s interest lists, and children of faculty or staff.

The term sounds a tad obscure, but the group isn’t a tiny sliver of the accepted students at Harvard. The ALDCs account for 30 percent of the class — and they get in at a rate eight times higher than the rest of the applicant pool.

Overall, about 1 in 20 applicants are accepted at Harvard. For legacies, the number is roughly 7 in 20. Faculty children and dean’s interest list applicants have even better odds, about 9 in 20.

Judge Burroughs acknowledged that getting rid of those preferences might help non-white students, but in turn it would dampen “the student experience” because Harvard sports teams would lose so much more often.

“Eliminating tips for ALDC applicants would have the effect of opening spots in Harvard’s class that could then be filled through an admissions policy more favorable to non-white students, but Harvard would be far less competitive in Ivy League intercollegiate sports, which would adversely impact Harvard and the student experience.”

Judge Burroughs suggested that scrapping those advantages would also hurt the university’s ability to attract top quality faculty and staff. (Really? If Harvard didn’t give professors’ kids a leg up in admissions, faculty wouldn’t take jobs at Harvard?)

The judge did point out that all of these preferences are up for debate.

“The Court notes that reasonable minds can differ on the importance of college athletics, alumni relations, and admitting the children of faculty and staff, but takes no position on these issues other than to note that these are topics best left to schools to figure out for themselves. As relevant here, eliminating these tips or preferences is largely unrelated to the goal of diversity or the issue of race, and in any event, is not a race-neutral alternative that would obviate the need for considering race in admissions.”

From a legal perspective, most of this is definitely irrelevant to the case at hand. Legacies and faculty children aren’t specific groups protected by the 14th Amendment. But it’s hard to think that enrolling nearly a third of Harvard’s class because they play lacrosse or had a father who went there in the 1980s is “unrelated to the goal of diversity.”

Losers? Hobos?

On Thursday, Sara and I went to New York to attend a forum marking the 75th anniversary of The Teagle Foundation — and this notion of merit kept popping up.

Jennifer Summit, provost at San Francisco State University and a former Stanford professor, talked about how various parts of our higher education system are “under the spell of meritocracy.” For places like Stanford, that filtering happens on the front end. At more open institutions like San Francisco State, it happens after students enroll.

Either way, “merit” isn’t a word that often gets tossed around when we talk about community colleges, the home of nearly half of American undergraduates, but it’s under the surface all the time. Frank Bruni, a New York Times reporter, asked Gail Mellow, the recently retired president of LaGuardia Community College in New York, about the biggest misperception of her institution’s students.

“That they’re losers,” she said. “Instead what we mostly have in community colleges is poor people.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski, the president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reminded the audience of a time when some prominent college leaders didn’t think returning World War II veterans had the right stuff to succeed at college. Indeed in 1944, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, predicted the GI Bill would turn campuses into “educational hobo jungles.”

The crowd chuckled at just how crazy that sounds to our modern ears.

Then Hrabowski pointed out that maybe we should all pause to look in the mirror: “What are people going to be saying about us years from now?”

— Scott Smallwood


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