Thorny Trade-Offs After the Harvard and UNC Rulings

“There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs; you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.” – Thomas Sowell

Many academic observers have high hopes that the expected Supreme Court rulings in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases will settle the race question in college admissions once and for all. But Robert VerBruggen of the Manhattan Institute is unconvinced by this rosy vision. Instead, in a recent brief, VerBruggen highlights “thorny trade-offs” in the era when race-conscious admissions may be banned.

According to the report, so long as racial diversity, racial representation, and other lofty ideals remain top priorities for American universities and colleges, race-neutral alternatives in a “post-race-consciousness” future are “anything but race-blind in their construction.” However, these alternatives hold bipartisan appeal for both affirmative-action friends who are looking to circumvent the anticipated ban on race-based admissions and affirmative-action foes eager to prove that “diversity is possible without the use of race.”

The paradoxical nature of race-neutral alternatives has far-reaching ramifications not only for college admissions but also for American higher education in toto. As VerBruggen concludes, “the fights over race and enrollment in higher education will be far from over when the Court rules.”

Merit & Standards

After all, race-neutral preferences are still preferences awarded to applicants who would otherwise not have met admissions criteria under a merit-based model. In the name of diversity, socioeconomic preferences—such as “percent plans” in Texas and Florida that grant admission to state universities to all students in a top percentile of their high school classes—will only exacerbate the mismatch problem. This is especially true when schools still aim to achieve racial balancing because, without the explicit instrument of race consciousness, they will need to cast a wider net and show preference to more than the intended number of racial minorities.

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Simulation D in the Harvard case demonstrates the negative mathematical effect of socioeconomic preferences on academic excellence. To maintain its current enrollment levels of underrepresented minorities without racial preferences, Harvard will have to eliminate its special admissions categories (legacy, dean’s list, and children-of-faculty-and-staff) and broaden preferences based on socioeconomic status (SES). SES preferences include equally weighting individual-level and community-level factors such as parental income, parental education, and percentage of English-language learners. As a result, “the number of admits with the highest academic indexes would fall about 17%. And the typical SAT score of Harvard students would fall 64 points on a 2,400-point scale, roughly from the 99th to the 98th percentile.”

If race-based affirmative action is banned, selective schools unwilling to lower standards would lose access to new students from one rung down the ladder, sabotaging their diversity work and forcing them to gravitate away from academic rigor. But the incompatibility of merit and diversity has been thwarted by a compounding factor: the all-out war on standardized testing, which started with the University of Chicago in 2018, accelerated as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and expanded to over 1,800 accredited four-year colleges. VerBruggen’s statistical analysis suggests a modest effect, measured at around 5%, of ending test requirements on black undergraduate enrollment, and no measurable effect on Hispanic enrollment. But with time and a widening scope, doing away with tests will become a desirable instrument for admissions officers looking to shift their schools’ demographics and, thus, circumvent the court rulings banning racial preferences.

The Moral Impasse

Employed to accomplish the same ideological mandate of racial diversity, race-neutral preferences are subterfuges that select facially non-racial determinants as proxies for race. Even though Supreme Court rulings and federal law forbid race-neutral policies from being implemented for racial purposes that result in disparate impact, most players are reluctant to apply restrictions on race proxies. Given the opportunity, as demonstrated by oral arguments in the UNC case, admissions officers would always choose the kind of race-neutral preference that can yield the largest gains in racial diversity.

The reluctance to narrowly tailor race proxies is not unique to college admissions. In K–12 education, top public high schools like Thomas Jefferson High School in Northern Virginia, Lowell High School in San Francisco, and specialized high schools in New York City have all attempted to transition from test-based admissions to different variations of a lottery system in order to racially balance. They were met with fierce resistance from parents and the local community. In the cases of Thomas Jefferson High and New York’s specialized high schools, the proposals to phase out academic selection were challenged by Asian-American parents and groups in the courts. The proposed reform in Lowell was thwarted by a school board recall election in 2022. Alameda County, meanwhile, has devised public contracting programs to boost the participation of so-called socially disadvantaged small enterprises, with social disadvantage serving as a proxy for minority- and women-owned businesses. Where there is a will, there is a way.

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However, when the dust settles from the Harvard and UNC cases, we should not give into pessimistic cynicism. Setting legal precedents is necessary because banning outright racial preferences increases the costs of racially engineering college admissions. Even with inherent limitations and trade-offs, race-neutral admissions are still qualitatively better than race-based considerations because they prompt schools to “focus preferences on applicants facing real obstacles.”

These trade-offs demonstrate the ongoing nature of our work to arrest racialized thinking and policymaking. The culture war needs to be fought beyond the court of law. In higher education, this means reexamining the conflicts between merit, excellence, and critical thinking on the one hand and diversity, equity, and intellectual conformity on the other. Academia’s fundamental priorities must then change to consolidate and compliment progress in legal advocacy. If they do not, diversity-minded bureaucrats and ideologues can and will always find innovative ways to treat individuals differently based on how they look.

In popular culture, a more epic battle must be fought to define and redefine how Americans identify themselves and relate to each other. As long as identity-based balkanization—whether it is according to race/ethnicity or to gender—continues to monopolize our public discourse, victories by contrarians and dissenters will be piecemeal concessions that are easily offset by the tidal wave of progressivism. We need new norms and better ideas to achieve optimum trade-offs.

Editor’s Note: This article originally implied that New York City’s specialized high schools stopped using the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) for admissions. This is not true. The article has been corrected accordingly.

Image: Adobe Stock


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