Can Universities Protect Diverse Admissions and Excellence?Roundup
tags: higher education, affirmative action, meritocracy, colleges and universities
John R. Thelin is University Research professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Supreme Court is considering how prestigious universities make admissions decisions. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, challenged both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University in their respective uses of race-conscious criteria in rating undergraduate applicants. The volatile cases seem to confirm that Americans agree that a college education is important — while disagreeing on who should be admitted and why.
The case resurrects an American dilemma first posed in 1961 by John Gardner, president of the Carnegie Foundation, when he asked, “Can we be equal and excellent, too?” The question was urgent because the United States had unprecedented resources for higher education that coincided with growth in the number and diversity of students who were considering their educational prospects.
In 1910, for example, 5 percent of American 18-year-olds pursued education beyond high school. A half-century later, the United States was poised to expand this to 50 percent. But without thoughtful policies, access alone would not resolve unequal access for students across categories of race and income.
As the number of students who applied to college jumped in the early 1960s, it sparked debates on how the college admissions process ought to work and who should be admitted. Civil rights initiatives and court decisions like the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling made exclusion by race illegal in public educational institutions, and the 1965 Higher Education Act expanded access to education for minority groups, especially African American students, by providing federal financial aid to make college more affordable.
But at the same time, statistical research armed college admissions officers with a confidence in rankings of students based on their grades, test scores and other demographic criteria such as geographic residence, type of secondary school, gender and family income. The databases allowed them to compare an applicant with other students nationwide.
One consequence was that a cohort of colleges became more selective. While most colleges had to work to enroll an adequate number of qualified students to fill their entering class each year, a small number of institutions, both private and public, gained the luxury of choice among a large pool of academically strong applicants. The admissions office at these selective colleges now had the analytic tools to create each year what deans hailed as “The Best Class Yet.”
According to historian Marcia Graham Synnott, the changing composition of the student body at academically prestigious colleges like Harvard, Yale and Princeton was a “half-opened door” for new constituencies. Proponents of “selective college” admissions argued that this selectivity allowed institutions to fulfill several purposes all at once, including using SAT scores to recruit promising young scientists and creating “balance in the college.”