In College Admissions, Affirmative Action and Its Critics Both Have The Same Problem  

CAMBRIDGE, MA - SEPTEMBER 12: Freshman Winston Yan enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images

Another day, another article about the reality of race-sensitive college admissions. But what strikes me every time the affirmative action controversy comes up in this context is that there’s an underlying conceptual incoherence in the admissions process.

The background idea in American higher education seems to be that the students who are in some sense “best” should be grouped together at elite institutions where they receive more instructional resources than are given to less able students. This then raises a question of fairness if the standard construction of who the “best” students are ends up massively underrepresenting black kids relative to their share in the population. On the other hand, efforts to redress that situation raise a new specter of unfairness if some Asian kids end up in a worse school despite being “better” candidates than some of the African-American students who were admitted. There’s no resolution to this conundrum that’s going to be broadly acceptable, because the underlying premise makes no sense.

Disproportionate investment in the “best and the brightest” is a great way for China to improve its medal counts in the Olympic games. You want to identify a relatively small number of promising swimmers young in life and make sure that those promising swimmers get the best possible swim instruction. Only a handful of people win any swimming medals in any given Olympics, so if your goal is to maximize the medal count you need to concentrate your training resources on the best prospects. Helping an average swimmer go faster has no value in the quest for Olympic medals.

But higher education policy isn’t like that at all. Helping the average 18 year-old learn more is a totally valid goal of higher education policy. Helping below-average 18 year-olds learn more is a totally valid goal of higher education policy. If the powers-that-be think it’s useful to ability-rank 18 year-olds for pedagogical purposes, then perhaps that’s correct. But the second stage of the college sorting process where more resources are expended on a UC Berkeley student than a community college student doesn’t have any justification. That unfairness permeates the entire system. And because the system is unfair, there’s no way to incorporate race (or not incorporate it) or to replace race with class or geography or anything else that will produce a fair outcome.

The big questions we should be asking about higher education are: “why is so much government subsidy available to self-consciously elitist private institutions?” (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and “why is the funding structure of public institutions set up to maximize investment in the students with the least educational needs?” The debate over how to best allocate slots in an unfair system is a distraction.