Saturday, July 1, 2023

The end of affirmative action

The Crimson asked me to weigh in on the SCOTUS ruling against Harvard. My piece ("Unfinished Business") is now up. It's Harvard-specific. I don't think losing this case will actually matter much to Harvard, given that the majority opinion invites colleges to consider race in its admissions practices insofar as race matters to the experience of the individual applicant. Harvard's process is so unmechanized and individualized already that I bet the outcomes will be very similar in the future. Not so, I imagine, at other institutions reliant on rule-based systems for making admissions decisions. I do fear that the majority opinion will motivate "disadvantage" to be used as, and seen as, a proxy for racial classification. That may be fairer in one way, but it would incentivize a lot of whining by perfectly solid candidates about the traumas they have endured. The self-confident world-beaters with positive attitudes are going to be discouraged from presenting themselves that way. Again, though, Harvard at least will adjust; the Admissions folks know how many grains of salt with which to take application essays.
The bigger problem, of course, the problem for all of higher education, is that an institution that wants to "look like America" and admit students from across the spectrum of American high schools has to deal with the very high, and increasing, variance in the quality of American high schools. The paradoxes of fairness will not go away until that variance shrinks. (For example, should admissions offices, in an effort to favor the disadvantaged, penalize the low-income family that sacrificed all discretionary spending so they could move into a better school district where their kids would be better educated?) And while I would be glad to see Harvard and other universities work on that problem, I am skeptical that they can do much about it, since it is fundamentally political. America believes in local control and local funding of schools, and is skeptical of national standards and national curricula. Within those parameters, it seems to me that nationally representative universities like Harvard will continue to be dealing with enrolled students with sharply different levels of preparation.
(By the way, the other SCOTUS decision, on Biden's ambition to cancel student debt, is absolutely irrelevant to Harvard College, since undergraduates don't ordinarily graduate with significant debt. Of course it may affect students in the professional schools or in Continuing Education, some of whom have racked up significant debt before coming to Harvard or may borrow in order to attend Harvard's graduate schools.)