Despite a lot of huffing and puffing from the pundits in the immediate reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision that race can no longer be a criteria for college admissions, the response from the general public has been “remarkably muted” (Brookings Institute, William Galston, 7/7/23).
That’s because most Americans, and strikingly, most blacks and Hispanics, support the Court’s decision. According to a poll conducted by The Economist/YouGov, Americans who “strongly favor” the decision outweigh those who “strongly oppose” by a 28% margin, 46% to 18%. Young people aged 18-29 back the Court’s decision by nearly a 2-1 margin, 49% to 26%. Among minorities who might benefit from racial preference in admissions, black Americans support the Court’s decision 44% to 36%, and Hispanic Americans, 45% to 30%.
I believe these numbers reflect the feeling that, for the most part, racially based admissions programs have failed to significantly advance the cause of racial equality—some would argue, to the extent they tarnish the achievements of successful minorities—they’ve even been destructive of that end. The Pew Research Center reports that only 1 in 5 black respondents believe they’ve been helped by affirmative action in admissions and hiring practices. Eleven current states, including California, have already disallowed racial preference in admissions, and to the extent that racial preferences are still relevant, they apply principally to our nation’s most selective, most elite universities, affecting a very small number.
Justice Thomas argued these points in his concurring opinion. Racial preference in admissions policies, he contended, do nothing to increase the overall number of blacks and Hispanics able to get into college but instead “simply redistribute individuals” among colleges and universities, “placing some into more competitive institutions than they otherwise would have attended” and where they may be less likely to succeed academically. And if they do succeed, Thomas wrote, they may still be harmed by the stigma that race-conscious admissions programs create—that they got in on a pass. (Thomas has dealt with that stigma most of his life). Rather than solving existing issues of inequality, Thomas argued, these policies themselves divide students and “lead to increasing racial polarization and friction.”
It appears that a majority of our country, including blacks and Hispanics, agree.
But will this decision truly change admission policies or simply cause universities to shuffle the deck differently? In a colorful interview with Anthony Caravale, Director of Georgetown’s “Center on Education and the Workforce” and an economist (“Harvard Ruling Will Put Spotlight on College Elitism,” The 74, July 10, 2023), Caravale says this decision will “rip the band aid off” the truth, and expose the socio-economic elitism of the universities. Universities need money, lots of it, so flush enrollments and strong tuition streams are critical. Racial preferences give selective universities masks that increase their pool of prospective students and project them as progressive and generous, when in fact the vast majority of their minority students come from families who are wealthy, similar to the rest of the student body. Universities collect as much as they can from them for the “privilege” of enrolling.
“Filthy rich” schools such as Harvard will be OK, Caravale predicts, since they have the means to re-orient their admissions preferences toward social class and away from race. If they intentionally aim for poorer students they will have a more diverse student body. But only a few schools have multi billion dollar endowments, and so cannot afford comprehensive affirmative action programs truly aimed at social class. They need the majority of their students to pay full freight or thereabouts. This is the reason universities so jealously protect legacy admissions policies, completely contrary to merit based standards. Wealthy graduates beget wealthy progeny! And grateful parents and grandparents give generously! But in a world without racial preferences, Caravale says, selective universities will be exposed for what they’ve always been: institutions that serve the socio-economically elite, on whom they are dependent, with little “diversity” to suggest otherwise.
The problem is that Americans despise elitism—especially white elitism— and in this new light of day, the reputation of these universities will suffer greatly. Carvale predicts two year institutions and trade schools will be the beneficiaries.
But I don’t think selective schools will allow this to happen. These are multi-million dollar—in many cases, multi-billion dollar—businesses, run by smart people whose jobs are to protect their school’s market share. Built within the Court’s argument is a giant loophole that universities will exploit to maintain the status quo: While the Courts will not allow race as a general category to boost minority enrollment, applicants may write in their essays how their experiences as an individual, especially instances of racism, have shaped their lives, and universities may use these subjective experiences to assess the quality of an individual’s character and admissions worthiness.
Carvale is sharply critical of this workaround:
“What disgusts me… is that they’re demanding that minority applicants humiliate themselves. The best way for a minority to get into Harvard now — it’s allowed in this opinion — is to write an uessay about the hardship you’ve suffered; that your parents abused you, that your neighborhood abused you, that you got beaten up going to school every day, and that was good for your character. I find that humiliating, to turn on everyone you know and care about so that you can get into Harvard. Telling your story in this way is kind of like racial porn: “Let’s see who’s got the sorriest story to tell, and we’ll let them in!”
But I am reasonably sure that the universities will find a way to frame these kind of questions in a way that is less humiliating than Carvale predicts. They will ask essays of all applicants, for example, to discuss incidences of social injustice they have encountered personally or have witnessed, and what they’ve done in response or how they have grown from their encounter. Essays will be given much more weight in the admissions decision. And that will allow universities to continue to keep their student bodies as diverse (and as wealthy) as they want them to be— in a way that is explicitly permitted by the Court.
University presidents, in their initial response to the Court’s ruling, have already said as much. This statement from Liz Magill, president of Penn, is representative:
“This decision will require changes in our admissions practices. But our values and beliefs will not change. Bringing together individuals who have wide-ranging experiences that inform their approach to their time at Penn is fundamental to excellent teaching, learning, and research. In full compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision, we will seek ways to admit individual students who will contribute to the kind of exceptional community that is essential to Penn’s educational mission.”
Don’t expect the institutional behavior of universities to change much due to the Court’s decision. There’s no tsunami coming. In the end, schools have too many vested interests, and too much money on the line, to push against the status quo.