Survival of the Smartest

The campus battle between proponents of intellectual merit and those of racial preferences in admissions has been a long and disappointing campaign. Nevertheless, victory now seems within reach thanks to the current Court’s likely opinion in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College. At long last, racial discrimination will—hopefully—end by ending racial discrimination. Alas, victory celebrations may be premature. A favorable decision will be yet one more episode in the conflict, not its happy conclusion. The unanticipated costs may also cool the celebrations.

What’s guaranteed, though, especially from elite schools, is massive resistance. Not the theatrical stand-in-the-doorway of Gov. George Wallace, but a well-crafted, high-sounding campaign. Universities will insist that reversing current admissions policies requires time—they must assemble multiple committees to ensure compliance and consult legal departments. All deliberate speed is not exactly overnight. The best and the brightest will meanwhile discover creative definitions of “intellectual merit,” and will take their time to devise (and validate) cutting-edge “discrimination-free” measures. Rest assured, the whole idea of “objective merit,” including its long and troubled racist history, will be scrutinized, and these insights will inform future amicus curiae briefs when the Court’s current conservative majority shifts. If the usual tsunami of academic obscurantist gobbledygook fails, just resort to good old lying.

More troubling, however, will be the universities’ reasonable resistance to SAT-über alles merit in their admissions processes. Even ardent opponents of racial preferences will concede that honest reasons exist for admitting students unable to survive rigorous academic scrutiny. Some justifications are largely economic. Schools need legacy admits, the less-than-brilliant offspring of billionaires and the children of high-IQ faculty who illustrate regression to the mean. What about others whose athletic, artistic, or musical talent outshines middling test scores? Hard-nosed MIT admits that some critical talents lie beyond SAT-like measurement. The University of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins nailed it: a university president’s job is sex for undergraduates, parking for faculty, and football for alumni. It’s hard to visualize every school following the Cal Tech model of objectively measured merit and nothing more.

Can this dilemma be solved without permitting racial preferences to sneak back in? A solution exists, the cost of which would likely be cheaper than financing the bloated DIE bureaucracy: a more generous admissions process with a corresponding early culling of the herd. Return to the era when freshmen were told “look to your right, look to your left, and by next year, two of you will be gone.” This is not a call for open admissions as exemplified by the disastrous events at CUNY. Most Harvard applicants will still be rejected, and so the school’s reputation will remain intact. The point is that Darwinian evolution works even among those who do not believe in Darwin. Let merit be decided by actual educational outcomes, not some hocus-pocus algorithm to predict success.

[Related: “Self-Identified ‘Compelling Interests’ are Not a License to Discriminate”]

Consider the current Harvard freshman class. Most recently, the school admitted 2,320 students out of an applicant pool of 57,786—a 4% acceptance rate. Surely, given those who applied to Harvard, doubling or even tripling this number would hardly damage the school’s reputation, and diversity would still survive.

With the door now a bit ajar, no high-performing, 1600-scoring Asian applicant would have to settle for his second choice. African Americans on the bubble at Harvard would now be admitted, and while the class profile would still fall short of exact racial representation, the absolute number of blacks would be high. With a more generous admissions standard, the motivation to litigate would also decline along with the acrimony generated by high-stakes preferences. After all, these lawsuits are about admission, not graduation with a prestigious degree. As for the many youngsters who flunk out of Harvard, the large number reduces the stigma of failure, and nearly all will attend good schools elsewhere. Moreover, achieving diversity would no longer require creating huge plain-to-see racial gaps in test scores, and with that embarrassment gone, Harvard administrators would no longer have to lie about fudging the numbers. Free at last!

The cost of a much-expanded freshman class is not insurmountable. Private sector entrepreneurs would easily meet the needs of hundreds—maybe thousands—of Harvard freshmen who unexpectedly received fat envelopes. Think of the over-populated college campus following the G.I. Bill. Slumlords to the rescue. Nor will elite schools be defeated by the need for super-sizing freshmen and sophomore entry-level courses—cheap adjunct labor abounds on today’s campuses, and if worse comes to worst, rent long-closed movie theaters. Use Zoom and TV! The possibility of new-found tuition extracted from the expanded freshman class will surely concentrate administrators’ minds.

The most formidable obstacle is faculty willingness to cull the herd in an era when students are prized customers and professors boost their evaluations by inflating grades, dumbing down syllabi, and accepting intellectual incompetence. But the good news is that this coddling is reversible thanks to the new influx of students. With the prospect of advanced courses being overwhelmed by these new arrivals, the “student-as-valued-customer” mentality is now no longer relevant.

[Related: “How Diversity Promotes Racial Rancor”]

No professor wants to grade an extra dozen papers in his upper-level courses, so professors can now, happily, return to tough standards and teaching intellectually demanding material. No more scrapbook portfolios or ignoring plagiarism. English will again be about Chaucer, not hip hop, and when students are expected to work hard, they will have less time for frivolous political crusades. Why waste countless hours protesting some obscure cultural appropriation if professors freely hand out “Fs”?

In-class rigor will also improve as marginal students flee tough classes for the sanctuary of easy “gut” courses. Gone will be the days when the intellectually challenged might enroll in serious courses, knowing that they were guaranteed at least a “B” since no professor would flunk anybody and deprive the school of valued tuition, all while risking a bad course evaluation. As occurred prior to grade inflation and all the rest, those barely hanging on would seek safety in Mickey Mouse courses (now, perhaps, called Minnie Mouse courses in Women’s Studies).

Yes, thanks to these safe havens for students on the bubble, universities would continue to graduate Post-Colonial Therapeutic Dance majors, but, on the other side of the ledger, such students would no longer clutter serious courses—it’s far too risky. A self-imposed quarantine, so to speak. Future employers would now know that a Harvard psychology major probably learned something of value and really worked for their “B.”

It’s time to return to the Baby Boom era when masses of applicants allowed schools to be tough intellectually. Opening the gates a little—again, not open admissions—will avoid the legal clash of merit and diversity without imposing impossible-to-satisfy legal requirements. This opening will also legally permit universities to recruit those who do not do especially well on standardized tests but who nevertheless contribute to campus life. The wild card is, of course, the faculty’s willingness to do its job. We can only hope.


Image: Elijah Hail, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

3 thoughts on “Survival of the Smartest

  1. UMass Amherst actually tried this circa 1990, largely in response to a budget deficit.

    Three problems:
    First, both freshman attrition and 6-year are tracked. They are part of accreditation and the instition’s reputation.

    Second, smart kids don’t want to be amongst morons. The makeup of the freshman class, ie GPA & SAT, is published. What happened to UMass was the legislature mandated a minimum GPA.

    Third, idle hands do the Devil’s work — when you dumb down classes, your ETOH & drug problems increase expodentially.

    And them there is the issue of flunking out the Black kids. That didn’t go so well at UMass…

  2. Comrade Bob: I thought there was something a little off about your reference to Robert Hutchins, he of the University of Chicago. With the wonder of the search engine (yes, google) I found that the quote is actually attributed to Clark Kerr, he of that other U of C (or UC). (I am actually quite fond of both of these institutions, at least in their earlier incarnations). e.g. this well-researched reference:

    https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/01/parking/

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