I was sorry but not surprised to see Thursday’s Supreme Court decision disallowing affirmative action in college admissions. It is ironic that a court that regards itself as conservative has taken an action so radical in terms of upsetting long-standing practices and expanding federal power over private institutions. Unless universities now respond dramatically and innovatively, the likely result will be degradation of an American university system that is the envy of the world.
Much of the strength of our university system derives from its pluralism, with fierce competition among institutions large and small, public and private, sectarian and nonsectarian, specialized and liberal-arts oriented, research or teaching focused. It is crucial to allow private institutions to set their own course in admissions and other matters essential to their missions unless bright red lines such as segregation or defrauding students are crossed.
Further, as former president Barack Obama’s powerful statement this week on his own experience reminds us, admissions policies focused beyond the test scores that dominate in most other countries have allowed private schools to make great contributions to social justice in the United States.
There is risk following this week’s decision that educational excellence will be set back. To say admissions policies should not be based wholly on test scores is not to say test scores should have no role. If schools take steps such as abolishing testing requirements or emphasizing criteria apart from academic performance to preserve diversity, the result is likely to be a diminishment in how much knowledge they can impart and ultimately a reduction in their contribution to society.
What is done is done, however, and a deep rethinking is now needed. After this earthquake from the court, I hope that elite institutions will broaden their focus from diversifying the racial composition of their ivory towers to additional dimensions of diversity and broadening their commitment to opportunity and social justice.
While I supported affirmative action and was heavily involved as university president in writing Harvard’s brief in the landmark 2003 affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollinger, I have always been uncomfortable with admissions policies that substantially favor the prep-school-attending minority children of wealthy parents with Ivy League degrees over poor kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with access only to substandard public schools. Years ago, Obama expressed a similar sentiment when he made clear that he did not think that his children should benefit from affirmative action policies.
Here is the ambitious program that follows from these considerations. First and most straightforwardly, elite universities should eliminate preferences for legacy applicants, take a hard look at admissions preferences for those who excel in “aristocrat sports” and resist being impressed by those who have benefited from high-priced coaching through the admissions process.
Elimination of early decision and early admission options would also make the process fairer to applicants from less-sophisticated and -advantaged families.
These steps would open up many admissions slots for which most poor and minority applicants cannot effectively compete at present.
Furthermore, I hope “holistic” admissions policies will move to more explicitly consider family disadvantage in selecting applicants. Finding students who have overcome real disadvantage, rather than judging personality, should be central in admissions interviews.
But there are even more promising avenues to pursue. Selective private colleges and universities enroll a tiny fraction of 18-year-olds each year. Changes in their admissions policies will in turn only affect a small fraction of their classes. So for all the attention they attract, the admissions policies of these institutions have a marginal impact on social justice.
If elite institutions are serious about social justice, they have to think about scale. What except exclusivity is the rationale for not significantly expanding freshman classes as applicant pools explode?
Beyond that, many leading universities have summer and extension schools. Instead of running summer schools and camps for the children of the privileged, with high tuition and limited financial aid, why not create programs for able disadvantaged kids and motivated and eager public school teachers? Technology makes possible extension courses not just for local education but also for the world and not just for young people but also for students of all ages.
In an earlier era, leading universities were deeply involved with strengthening pre-college education. University faculty created advanced placement courses and, in the post-Sputnik era, a range of science curriculums. With the internet, the capacity of universities to support and supplement high school education is immense.
All of us who are part of elite university communities are tremendously fortunate. Indeed, Ivy League endowments have grown dramatically over the past generation. The question for America’s elite institutions is this: Will they define their greatness by their exclusivity, while debating who will be the privileged few? Or will they take truly affirmative action, and use their vast resources and great human and social capital to include as many people as possible?