The College Admissions Sausage Factory

Our go-to thinker on civil rights issues, University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot, is out with a new paper (with co-author Carissa Mulder) on “The Sausage Factory” of college admissions. Here is the abstract:

The Supreme Court assumes that race-preferential admissions policies are the result of a careful academic judgment by colleges and universities that racial diversity has pedagogical benefits for students generally. But evidence shows that the usual motivation for these policies is quite different. In part it is ideological: Such policies are an effort to pay a debt for past or present societal discrimination—a motivation the Supreme Court has rejected as unconstitutional in the past. In part it is practical: Pressure for these policies comes from state legislatures, private foundations, the federal government, accreditors, and other similar sources. Why respond to such pressure? Frequently, that’s where the money is.

There is little reason to suspect that the Court would be deferential to academic institutions on this matter if its members understood how admissions policies are really made. The American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote in 1869, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” He could have been speaking of modern admissions policies.

The complete 41-page paper is much more explicit and damning than this summary.  Some excerpts:

[T]he University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts was adding twenty extra points, based entirely on race, to students’ admissions scores. Those twenty points were equivalent to an entire letter grade: An African American student with an unspectacular 2.99 high school GPA would thus be admitted over an Asian American or white student with a near-perfect 3.98 GPA, all other things being equal. Or, to look at those twenty points another way, the most an applicant could get for achieving a perfect score on the SAT was twelve points. Being African American was thus enough to overcome even the most disappointing scores on the SAT.

The Supreme Court curtailed this direct extra-point bonus practice in the Grutter case, but the real message of that case was that “the college . . . needed to hide what it was doing better. But as long as it avoided mathematical formulae, it could go on discriminating.”

One very interesting aspect of this paper is its long discussion of how legislative pressures, as much if not more than simple ideology, has driven the “diversity” admissions regimes at public universities that are beholden to state governments for much of their funding. This is an aspect of the scene that is largely overlooked.

It is unlikely that the Court in Grutter would have approved the University of Michigan’s race-preferential admissions policy if the university’s explanation for it had been “This is what our state legislature wants, and it is our judgment that without the legislature’s support, our educational mission will suffer” or “The Ford Foundation is very enthusiastic about race-preferential admissions, and that’s where the money is.” Yet explanations like these are more consistent with aggressive efforts to enroll minority students despite large gaps in academic credentials than is any effort to capture diversity’s educational benefits for all students. It is beyond comprehension that a college or university would neglect to consider the pedagogical problems created by the inevitable gaps in academic credentials if the educational benefits of diversity were, in fact, its primary concern.

The paper notes that despite the relentless efforts of the diversicrats and the media to promote the ideology of “diversity,” it remains highly unpopular with Americans.

It’s not just that most Americans find the justification for race-preferential admissions fails to rise to the level of “compelling.” They don’t find it convincing at all. They’re against such policies. And they have consistently opposed them for decades. For example, Gallup polls asked the following question of Americans in 2003, 2007, and 2013:

Which comes closer to your view about evaluating students for admission into a college or university—applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted (or) an applicant’s racial and ethnic background should be considered to help promote diversity on college campuses, even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted?

Every time, the response has consistently been at least 2 to 1 in favor of merit only. Similarly, Pew Research asked the following question in 2019:

When it comes to decisions about hiring and promotions, do you think companies and organizations should take a person’s race and ethnicity into account, in addition to their qualifications, in order to increase diversity in the workplace (or) should only take a person’s qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity in the workplace?

The latter alternative was chosen by 74 percent of the respondents

This is consistent with the polling results throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During that period, too, polls offered consistent results opposing race-preferential admissions, causing public-opinion experts Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza to write that the race-preferential policy agenda “is controversial precisely because most Americans do not disagree about it.” There is even evidence that a majority of college and university faculty members oppose race-based admissions policies.

Finally, there is a long section about the insidious role of accrediting agencies that will make your blood boil.

The Supreme Court can put a stop to this once and for all in the Harvard/UNC case before it next term.

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