A Weak Attempt at Justifying Admissions Preferences

In the Summer 2019 issue of Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, Professor Dennis Weisman of Kansas State University offers a benign view of college admissions preferences. In “What Constitutes ‘Discrimination’ in College Admissions?” Weisman argues that since colleges admit many students for reasons other than their high degree of academic ability, there’s no good reason to complain about racial preferences that supposedly enhance campus “diversity.”

Professor Weisman’s case is not persuasive. Choosing to admit students (or to hire faculty or administrators) just because those individuals happen to have ancestry that puts them into groups favored by educational leaders is not justified by any gains to the institution. All it does is give college officials a feeling of personal satisfaction that they have contributed in the battle for “social justice.” I will return to that point later.

What Educational Benefits?

First, Weisman relies on the jaded claim that having a “diverse” student body promotes learning and racial understanding, quoting Justice O’Connor’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. He writes that she “reasoned” in her opinion that having a diverse student body “promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession.” But O’Connor’s statement was just an assertion. It was not an exercise of reasoning, much less a statement of fact.

[Diversity’s Worst Failure—the Faculty]

Several years after that case, Justice O’Connor admitted in an essay in a book on the subject of racial preferences that the Court actually did not have a sound basis for declaring that there are educational benefits from a racially diverse student body. She wrote that the Court should “reassess” its position. (In this essay, I discussed her remarkable but overlooked admission regarding the Grutter case.)

Where did O’Connor and the other pro-preference justices get the idea that diversity leads to educational benefits? They came from the University of Michigan’s brief, as well and those of other pro-preference amicus briefs in the case. The University of Michigan, trying to defend its admission practices, argued that it had research to prove that more diversity means better learning on campus, but that research was shown to be worthless by Thomas Wood and Malcolm Sherman in this lengthy study for the National Association of Scholars. In 2001 Wood and Sherman concluded that the educational benefits rationale for college admission preferences must be rejected.

No Proof Any Students Benefit

To this day, there is no proof that mixing in a quota (or, as diversity advocates put it, “critical mass”) of students from certain racial groups does anything to improve the level of education for any students, much less for all of them. There is, however, some strong evidence that by mismatching weaker students with more demanding schools, we harm educational outcomes.

In their book Mismatch, Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr. showed that many students admitted for “diversity” reasons to prestige schools would have been better off had they enrolled in a school where they were not at a competitive disadvantage with academically stronger students. Similarly, when economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and V. Joseph Hotz studied the outcomes of University of California students who had been admitted with lower academic qualifications to increase diversity, they concluded that “lesser-prepared minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses.”

So, there is evidence that “diversity” for its own sake has negative educational outcomes rather than the positive ones imagined by Justice O’Connor and many others. Strangely, however, we never hear college and university leaders express any doubt that racial preferences are beneficial, and Weisman ignores that possibility. It seems this is an issue where merely having good intentions is all that matters.

[Diversicrats Are All That’s Left on Campus]

But even if racial preferences don’t lead to better education, maybe they lead to other good institutional outcomes. That’s where Weisman goes next in his essay, arguing that administrators could be acting to raise their school’s prestige level when they adopt admission preferences. “Harvard,” he writes, “would have no incentive to depart from an admissions standard that reinforces its reputation as one of the world’s foremost educational institutions.” Do the leaders of prestige universities actually know that using racial preferences makes them more illustrious? Perhaps, but Weisman adduces no evidence to support that claim.

A Baseball Analogy

Instead, he relies on a baseball analogy to carry his point. He observes that no one objects if a team recruits a variety of players with different skills rather than just looking for those with the highest batting averages. It isn’t objectionable discrimination, he writes, when a team goes after a player who is an excellent defensive infielder but is just an average hitter. Since baseball teams take a “holistic” view of players, why shouldn’t universities like Harvard do the same thing and select students in a similar fashion?  Baseball teams want to win World Series and Harvard wants to win (or at least remain near the top) in the prestige rankings. That’s perfectly reasonable, Weisman contends.

The problem here is that the analogy is poor. Of course, baseball teams want players with different skills to optimize their chances of winning, but baseball players are proven to have those skills. Scouts and managers can look at statistics and see players in action. When it comes to students who have applied to college, however, very few of them have proven much about themselves. Some of them appear to have stronger academic abilities than others based on their high school records and standardized test scores, but none of them has yet done anything that would allow colleges to say, “this student is apt to be a future Nobel Prize winner,” or “this student is a future political leader.”

[How Oberlin Played the Race Card and Lost]

Moreover, the reputations of prestigious universities like Harvard depend far more on their faculty and financial resources than on what their graduates later accomplish in life. Choosing to admit a few more black and Latino students while rejecting a few more white and Asian students won’t affect Harvard’s reputation.

When college officials turn away applicants with very strong academic backgrounds in favor of others with weaker backgrounds it isn’t because the latter are thought more likely to do great things and enhance the school’s reputation. It’s simply because they “represent” one of the racial and ethnic groups those officials want more of. That explanation fits two facts about this matter.

One fact is that colleges doing racial preferences have almost the same percentages of students in the preferred groups year after year. Filling a quota appears to be the overriding concern rather than choosing those students who will do the most to keep up the school’s reputation. Colleges that employ racial preferences set aside places in their incoming classes for applicants from certain minority groups. Seeking to fill quotas from groups hardly seems consistent with a strategy of selecting students for their probable future success.

The second fact is that when voters have decided against racial preferences in admissions (as, for example, Michigan did in 2006), college leaders have gone ballistic in opposition. After the victory of the anti-preference ballot initiative in Michigan, the president of the University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman, issued a defiant statement in which she declared that diversity was the university’s most important job. Michigan still could and did choose students based on all their individual characteristics except race, but taking away race sent seismic tremors through the state’s higher education establishment.

[Are Elite Universities Still Open to Jewish Students?]

That suggests that college leaders have an emotional attachment to racial preferences. If you doubt that, consider the way Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono was treated by then-president Richard Brodhead when he published research critical of Duke’s admission preferences. Rather than saying, “Those are findings that we must now consider,” Brodhead publicly upbraided the professor for releasing research that caused some people on campus to get upset. (Professor KC Johnson writes about that episode here.) Similarly, UCLA professor Richard Sander has suffered ad hominem attacks for having called the benefits of racial preferences for law students into question.

In short, it seems that racial preferences are an article of faith among the “progressives” who almost uniformly hold top positions in our higher education system. There is no dissent among them that more racial diversity is an important goal and outside criticism is ignored if not rebuked.

No Oversight, No Benchmarks to Meet

The late Henry Manne argued that all management is really for-profit management, but that in nominally non-profit enterprises like universities, those in charge take their profits in the form of pleasant perquisites and personal indulgences. The faculty enjoys low teaching loads and general freedom from oversight, while administrators enjoy spending on large staffs and lavish conferences. The latter can also make decisions that they believe will enhance their status and upward mobility even at the expense of the intellectual integrity of their institutions.

To a considerable extent, college leaders get to run things as they like without noticeable adverse consequences. One of the things they like is the feeling that they’re doing their part to right some of the world’s wrongs and to most of them, statistical imbalances are evidence of some underlying social wrong. If too few black and Latino students qualify for top schools (including elite high schools), then it’s up to them to adjust admission standards so that gap disappears. Failing to demand preferences for groups regarded as victims of historical oppression would be considered a lack of commitment to fairness, something that no good “progressive” wants.

That, I submit, is the reason why nearly all college leaders insist that they need more diversity. Admission preferences for certain minority groups is a personal indulgence they can’t resist.

[Whitewashing the Harm Colleges Inflict on the Nation]

Finally, Weisman points out that many colleges and universities have preferences for athletes and “legacies” (that is, applicants with family ties to the school). Rather than providing a defense for racial preferences, however, those preferences have been attacked as undermining the academic integrity of higher education. Lowering your admission standards in search of a better football team or in hopes of reeling in more cash for the endowment diverts a school from its educational mission. Two (or three) wrongs don’t make a right.

But why does this matter?

It matters first because the U.S. has made a legal commitment to non-discriminatory educational policy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids federal funds from going to schools that discriminate because of race. If Harvard or any other college or university wants to choose students so that their race is a key if not deciding factor, it can legally do so by declining federal student aid money. Otherwise, it is or at least should be bound to race-neutral admissions.

Second, it matters because the obsession over race has had horrible consequences for American education. Rather than bringing people together, as Justice O’Connor thought, it has been divisive. On many campuses, we now have racially segregated living quarters, racially-themed student centers, and separate graduation ceremonies. The perceived need to cater to minority students led colleges to adopt a host of courses where group identity and grievances give anger a platform on campus. Academic integrity has been undermined by the mania for diversity.

America would be much better off if its education leaders had stuck to education and resisted the temptation to play at social engineering.



George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

9 thoughts on “A Weak Attempt at Justifying Admissions Preferences

  1. My son who has never gotten anything less than an ‘A’ his entire academic career, had a perfect ACT score, missed one question on the SAT, was a National Merit finalist, won the state of Texas National Geographic Bee, is an Eagle Scout, was a leader in his High School, participated in many community service projects, got perfect scores on eight AP tests including Calculus, Biology, English, French, and Social Studies, won many 1st place academic competitions and was the number six ranked high school Cross Country runner in the state. His dream was to go to an Ivy so he applied to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford… and received “So Sorry” letters from them all. Here’s the only thing we could think of that kept him out: He is a Fourth-generation Japanese American and 7th-generation Irish-Catholic, who identifies as Male, whose ancestors and relatives fought honorably in every war since World War I and whose parents are both professionals with Master’s Degrees and earn $200,000 a year? I guess I should have listened to my sister and had him identify himself as an emancipated, gay, pacific-islander. Oh well, their loss. Go Aggies.

    1. Oh my gosh! He would have been an in at the Naval Academy, West Point or the Air Force Academy. He was obviously meant to go to A&M, so it will work out the way it’s supposed to. All the Best!

    2. This then state-school undergrad lost his respect for Harvard when he had to convince some of their undergrads that they wouldn’t drown if they simply stood up and walked ashore (they were on a boat ramp)….

  2. Oh the games we play!

    Humpty Dumpty would be proud.
    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

    Here in Wonderland we Masters says “diversity”, and do the Cheshire-grin. But do we mean diversity/diversity… as the word is defined? No, silly goose, of course not! We mean rather racial and sexual variety (maybe). But probably not. Dean Dumpty doesn’t really mean THAT for if she meant that then Asian-Americans wouldn’t be suing about discrimination, and women wouldn’t outnumber men on college campuses. So, no, Dr. Dumpty doesn’t mean diversity/diversity…and no she doesn’t even mean racial & sexual variety….no, what she actually means is increasing the number of Black, Brown, and Female people on campus. (Well, sometimes, that’s what she means; depends on the day and the efforts of the TransRights Lobbies). Most particularly what she means is making whatever admissions decisions she wishes to make for whatever reasons she wishes to make them. So there!

    Sadly, Dr. Weisman scurries to defend his Emperor’s new clothes: “They’re gorgeous!” he tells us, “And they fit perfectly.”

    More specifically he explains: “defining discrimination exclusively in terms of a departure from merit-based admissions may be too narrow because it fails to account for the value conferred on the university by other types of admissions.” Tweedledum clarifies: “I know what you’re thinking about, but it isn’t so, nohow.’ ‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

    So glad we’ve cleared that up!

    The truth is, all universities discriminate. It is the nature of any entry filtering system to do so — to differentiate Candidate 1 from Candidate 2. And why to they discriminate (as opposed, say to simply admitting the first 1000 to apply)? Because every university wishes to build — over time — classes of alumni & generations of faculty who drive long-term benefit (quantitative and qualitative) to the school. It’s really pretty simple.

    So the question is: what admissions filtering system stands the best chance of doing exactly that? The answer is amazingly and obviously simple: filter by merit. What else?

    Dr. Weisman suggests that ‘merit’ may be too narrow, but that is only because he fails to understand the breadth of what merit encompasses. Yes, merit may reference Board Scores…and that would be one dimension: the higher the scores, the more likely the candidate is academically adequate. Another dimension is grade point. Another class rank. Another is athletic (given that the school prides itself on fielding top athletic talent). Another is experience: (class president, newspaper editor, entrepreneur, works 4 jobs, veteran, etc). Another is impact: books published, cancer cures found, new dinosaurs discovered, atc.

    Why & How is this possible? Because Merit — outside Wonderland — means simply the quality of being particularly good or worthy. We demonstrate (and observe) such worthiness in any number of ways (only one of which is Board Score). And so Merit, clearly, should be the ONLY entry filtering system any rational being should use if what they’re targeting is best-possible-yield.

    What should not be used….what distinctly has absolutely nothing to do with Merit & long-term quality impact… is skin color or genital configuration. Neither should we seek to filter our applicants by shoe size, jeans preference, zipcode, favorite movie, hair color, or taste in Greek Yogurt.

    It’s hard enough to find and advance the best and brightest even when we’re trying to do so; it’s impossible if we reject merit in favor of cosmetics.

    Would we assemble our cardiac surgery team based on such superficialities? Would the Celtics draft a basketball team as a function of demographic balance (66% White, 36% obese)? Would we want to drive across bridges built by Engineers chosen because they made the construction group look appropriately diverse?

    Of course not. No rational individual would.
    Unless of course they’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole….crashed through the looking-glass….swallowed the Blue Pill….snarfed the little bottle which said “Drink Me” and become very, very small indeed. Welcome, my friends to Wonderland….welcome to Pleasantville….where everything looks just perfect …and where all books are judged by their covers!

  3. Looking at it from a societal perspective, it makes sense to have all groups represented in “prestigious” positions in society. As Orwell noted in 1985 (through The Book, by the Trotsky-like character Goldstein), assimilative societies that do not have exclusion of different groups or minorities tend to last for millennia (he gives the example of the Catholic Church), whereas those that do not tend to collapse. No matter what one believes about the abilities of African-Americans, no one will deny that they would not have done much better had they not suffered hundreds of years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow. A certain accommodation to ameliorate that not only helps African-Americans but also the society at large. A refreshing honesty would be nice by universities–they are trying to make up for what has come before and while this may require practices that aren’t justifiable on the strict meritocratic basis, note the Ivies did find when only white Protestant males could attend and even to this day their discrimination against Asian applicants (who are more highly qualified than the average white applicant) does not diminish their prestige.

    And as a note below, while the author’s belief in the institutional integrity of higher education that has been besmirched by affirmative action is touching, I’ve been in academia all my life and I can testify this is a chimera. Only the fields that have a sizable outside oversight (the sciences, primarily) actually behave with anything approaching an intellectually honest methodology. This behavior is not dictated by the high moral standards of the individuals involved but rather outside examination of their activities.

    1. I disagree that the happenstance of one’s ancestry ought to matter when it comes to deciding whether to associate or contract with individuals. People ought to make such decisions based on pertinent characteristics of those under consideration. What one’s race or ethnic background might be is no more relevant than are one’s religious beliefs, one’s blood type, one’s musical preferences, and so on. Rather than assigning individuals to groups and then trying to balance group “representation,” let’s follow Dr. King’s admonition to evaluate them on the content of their character.

      1. Ex nihilo, I might agree with you, but we aren’t there. History matters. Ancestry is not “happenstance” in a society with a caste system and while racial identity does not determine one’s fate it casts a long shadow over it if one was African-American. Germany makes reparations for its treatment of the Jews and while I’m not necessarily in favor of funding money directly to blacks there really is something to be said for making up for centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow. As an example, subsidizing employment, say, in urban areas that are heavily African-American might improve things–jobs are a positive for many of the things we wish to encourage.

    2. 1) Orwell was wrong. The Catholic Church (and other societies that have lasted millennium) were not wholly assimilative. Just look at the nationalities of the Popes and the cardinals. Heck, just look at the SEX of who’s in charge and who is not. Why am I not surprised that you quoted a fiction writer instead of a historian?
      2) Only a quarter of today’s African Americans are descended from US slaves or slave owners. The remaining 75% are immigrants are descended from post 1865 immigrants. 25% of all African Americans arrived after 1985. So, the legacy of slavery is actually a very short shadow. Part of the reason African Americans seem to do poorly in statistics is because of the cultural, language and educational barriers that immigrants face. But we lump all black African people together. If we lumped all the white Europeans together…instead of breaking out N. European from S. European (Hispanic), the two groups would be virtually identical in “how they do”. But, it better suits the narrative of white supremacy to break out the most successful white people while reclassifying the southern, tanned whites that make up the current primary immigration influx as “brown”. Of course, we erase Asians too because they actually are most successful in the US.
      3) we don’t have a caste system. Recommend you look up what a caste system is…India was a good example.

  4. ““Harvard,” he writes, “would have no incentive to depart from an admissions standard that reinforces its reputation as one of the world’s foremost educational institutions.””

    Two words: PennCentral Railroad….

    The latter half of the 20th Century was filled with examples of once-great institutions (and industries) essentially committing suicide, with the management-caused implosions of the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads being perhaps the best example. Others include the demise of Detroit and the American auto industry, along with the collapse of the American steel industry.

    The people running those companies likewise “[had] no incentive to depart from” standards & practices that reinforced their reputations “as one of the world’s foremost [industrial] institutions.” But they did it anyway….

    And I suspect that Harvard (et al.) are likewise doing it anyway…

    …. and that the bubble is going to burst…

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