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May 17, 2003

Policy Break--Affirmative Action, Part I


After reviewing, as promised, the whole question of affirmative action, I believe we should replace race-based programs with programs targeting low-socio-economic students. I come to that conclusion as a result of finding most of the arguments for race-based affirmative action problematic. (Part I of this posting examines a number of such arguments; Part II will discuss my preferred option.)

Argument #1: Racial preferences in college admissions give poor downtrodden black kids an opportunity in life. Race-based affirmative action programs largely benefit middle and upper-middle-class blacks and Latinos, not those mired in poverty. John McWhorter, a professor of sociology at University of California at Berkeley (who is himself black) lays out the facts:

… [A]t selective colleges, black students from inner-city schools are vanishingly rare. …In the last class admitted to Berkeley under the racial preference regime, more than 65 percent came from household earning at least $40,000 a year, while the parents of about 40 percent earned at least $60,000 a year. Of the black students admitted in 1989 to 28 selective universities surveyed by William Bowen and Derek Bok [in their pro-affirmative action book, The Shape of the River], only 14 percent came from homes earning $22000 a year or less [$32,680 in FY2003 dollars].

Argument #2: Affirmative action just makes up for the fact that the SAT is biased against minorities. The charge that the SAT tests are biased against minorities doesn’t hold water. Analyses comparing minority SAT scores and freshman grades were published by Wayne J. Camara and co-authors in two papers, “Group Differences in Standardized Testing and Social Stratification” (1999--readable here) and “The SAT I and High School Grades: Utility in Predicting Success in College” (2000--readable here). The evidence suggests that SAT Verbal + Math scores over-predict freshman college grade point averages by about 0.2 grade points for male African-Americans and for male Hispanics, while accurately predicting the grade point averages of African-American and Hispanic women. In other words, contrary to what would happen if the SAT consistently under-predicted the performance of these groups, minorities do not “outperform” their test results in college. Moreover, the lower scores for minorities on the SAT are not unique to that test; very comparable results are seen from other admissions tests for undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, on national testing programs such as NAEP and NELS, and when using high school grades in order to predict college grades.

Christopher Jencks, Professor of Social Policy at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (and a supporter of affirmative action) makes the case in an interview with PBS Frontline (readable here) that whatever the problems faced by minorities, the SAT is not one of them:

…I don't think we have much reason to believe that the SAT underestimates the academic skills that minority kids have acquired at the end of twelfth grade. I think they really are behind and that we need to do something about that…

Argument #3: Minority students who go on to be doctors, lawyers, CEOs etc. will undoubtedly have more “utility to society” than an additional white or Asian professional would offer. The social utility argument takes two forms. The first appears in Bowen and Bok’s The Shape of the River, where it is argued that minority graduates from 28 highly selective universities are more active in community life than their white classmates. However, a closer examination of the data, which compares white and black activity in ten different aspects of community involvement, shows that over the full range of those aspects the involvement by ex-students of both races is quite similar. The statement (repeated several times by William Bowen in a PBS Frontline interview which you can read here) that black students who attended the highly selective schools were twice as likely to participate in community service organizations after graduation as their white counterparts, while roughly correct as far as it goes, distorts the overall thrust of his own data.

The second form this argument takes is the notion that highly selective universities have an especially urgent duty to educate a class of leaders for minority communities (whites and Asians apparently already possessing a sufficiently educated leadership). When highly selective universities make this argument they seem motivated by a remarkably self-important view of their own role in anointing “leaders” in American life. (Nothing personal, guys, but I’m quite glad none of my old college classmates from my Lousy Ivy University is currently representing me in public life.) Moreover, the universities possess a remarkably patronizing view that minority communities are unable to develop their own leaders.

Moreover, if ex-Princeton president Bowen, ex-Harvard president Bok and their fellow elite college administrators have been so truly convinced (for decades) that each and every minority student is destined for greater social utility than their white or Asian counterparts, why is it that top tier college classes are only 6% black and 6% Hispanic? After all, blacks make up 15% and Hispanics 12% of the 18-year-old population. In fact, the logic of this argument would suggest that highly selective universities should go all-minority, for a few years at least. As Michael Greve suggests, there is a strong whiff of hypocrisy when universities argue social utility as a justification for race-based affirmative action:

There are a million ways to get racial diversity without discriminating. You could simply have a lottery. The result would be that the University of Texas Law School, for example, would no longer be number 12 in the country, it would be maybe number 45. Do universities love diversity so much they are willing to surrender their elite status to achieve it? I don’t think so. They prefer to use racial discrimination and quotas so they can have it both ways. That’s why I think the claim that diversity is a “compelling interest” is insincere.

Argument #4: Excluding minorities at elite colleges would cheat the students out of the benefits of diversity. These benefits seem compelling to ex Princeton president Bowen in his PBS interview:

…[I]f you were to exclude, in effect, significant numbers of minority students from leading colleges and universities, you would harm not only those students and what they can contribute, but their white classmates…I lived through, on the Princeton campus, searing debates over South Africa and whether divestment was an appropriate response to apartheid…that kind of searing debate had enormous educational value.

The unique benefits of racial diversity were of course the primary rationale for allowing the use of race as a “plus factor” for Supreme Court Justice Powell in his Bakke decision of 1978. In his recent book, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Peter Wood takes issue with Justice Powell’s equation of diversity of race with diversity of opinion:

Does racial diversity really equal intellectual diversity? In later legal writing, this assumption is often called the “racial proxy” argument, i.e., racial diversity is a proxy for intellectual diversity. Many of us find the racial proxy argument very unconvincing on its face—and racist…The translation of diversity from the realm of proxy-for-ideas to proxy-for-experience still rests, at bottom, on group stereotypes. There is no “black experience” as such, nor a Hispanic experience as such, and so on. To justify college admissions preferences in these terms in to indulge in a racial essentialism that, were it made explicit, would be quickly recognized for the racism it really is. [Emphasis added]

Moreover, if racial diversity offered the great benefits attributed to it by Justice Powell, one would assume that students and faculty would be cognizant of them. Stanley Rothman, a professor at Smith College, has done considerable on-campus polling at a wide variety of institutions of higher education regarding attitudes towards racial diversity (his overview of this is readable here if you're willing to shell out); he is hard put to find many participants who share Justice Powell's point of view:

Diversity fails to deliver even when all else is equal. When we controlled for other demographic and institutional factors like the respondent's race, gender, economic background and religion, or an institution's public or private status, selectivity and whether it offers an ethnic or racial studies program, the results were surprising. A higher level of diversity is associated with somewhat less educational satisfaction and worse race relations among students.

Argument #5: Affirmative action, by granting minority students access to the most selective universities, provides serious benefits to the students themselves. This phenomenon seems pretty much beyond argument. When comparisons are made between similarly qualified minority students who either attend highly selective schools or who attend less selective colleges, the minority kids going to the more selective schools on average do better for themselves. Affirmative action supporters Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose document these trends in their 2003 study, "Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, And Selective College Admissions" (readable here):

…[S]tudents at top-tier colleges are more likely to complete their degree than students in the fourth-tier colleges with similar college entrance exam scores…For those with an SAT-equivalent score between 1000 and 1100, 86 percent graduate from top-tier colleges, 83 percent from second-tier institutions, 71 percent from third-tier colleges, and only 67 percent graduate from the 429 fourth-tier colleges…

In terms of going on to graduate school, the level of selectivity of colleges has a positive effect on students with similar SAT scores. For example, among those with SAT-equivalent scores greater than 1200, the group most likely to attend graduate school, 48 percent of those attending top-tier colleges and 43 percent of those attending second-tier colleges pursued graduate work. However, students who scored greater than 1200 but who attended one of the colleges in the bottom two tiers of selectivity were much less likely to attend graduate school…

While the differences in earnings for equally qualified students from “less” and “more” selective schools are small, they do appear to exist… Moreover, these differential effects are magnified for less advantaged or minority students who would not have been otherwise admitted without outreach, special consideration, or support. [Emphasis added]

I would describe all of these as “coat-tail” effects; that is, positive benefits for less-qualified students of being associated with (i.e., riding the coat-tails of) more qualified students. While highly selective colleges eagerly portray the vast benefits of attending their institutions (my Lousy Ivy alma mater is quite fond of putting out statistics of how well its graduates do financially), the truth is most clearly revealed by the last quoted paragraph above. The evidence of a boost in post-college career performance for the best students of highly selective colleges is extremely weak. (In another study quoted by Carnevale and Rose, and praised by them for its rigorous methodology, when one controls for the effect of average SAT scores of student bodies on schools, the earning premium for going to a more selective school drops to zero. And I’m aware of other studies that suggest such an earning premium for highly qualified students is either zero or even possibly negative.) In effect, the very top students at Harvard are actually doing the college a favor by going there, by lending Harvard the glow of their own capability (a pretty good deal for Harvard, since it charges them tuition just the same). But fortunately highly selective colleges can work this same magic in reverse for less qualified students.

The problem for race-based affirmative action, however, is that this “coat-tail” effect would have worked just as well for the (marginally qualified) white and Asian students who are getting bumped by race-based affirmative action, which means that losing their place at Harvard is a serious loss indeed.

The only way to actually improve the situation for society as a whole would be for universities to bump their most qualified students to make room for marginally qualified affirmative action students. This is because the harm to the most highly qualified would be non-existent and the benefit to the less qualified considerable. Unfortunately, since we’ll see that happen about the same time hell freezes over, the reality is that we’re back to deciding which group of marginally qualified students should get the goodies, and deciding that question solely on the basis of their racial classification is very dubious indeed.

Argument 6:Racial preferences in elite university admissions doesn’t hurt that many white kids, so what’s the big deal, anyway? As the demographic balance currently stands (or at least stood over a decade ago when Bowen and Bok's data was collected) it’s true that the percentage of white students getting bumped by race-based affirmative action at highly selective schools was fairly modest. Putting (typically) the best possible gloss on their data, Bowen and Bok in The Shape of the River found that white students would only see their chances of being accepted rise from 25% to 26.5% at a highly selective university if a race-neutral scheme were implemented. The obvious implication is that by what amounts to a miracle of mathematics, we could help a smallish disadvantaged group without causing much harm to the far larger majority. (Of such thinking is many a boondoggle born.)

Of course, one immediately notices that Bowen and Bok aren’t discussing the possible impacts on Asian or Jewish or Mormon kids, or any of those darn over-represented minorities. The impact of affirmative action (and its kindred spirit, racial/religious discrimination for the good of society) has undoubtedly been larger on these smaller groups than on whites as a whole. One example of this invidious impact was the 1980s policy to cap the admissions numbers of Asians at California’s flagship campus, Berkeley. As PBS Frontline describes the situation (readable here):

In April of 1989, Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman publicly apologized for the drop in Asian admissions [throughout the 1980s] at the school. Though he denied that policies had been put in place to deliberately restrict Asians, he vowed to make changes to correct the error. [?!] In May, the University announced changes to admissions standards that placed more emphasis on academic achievement, and agreed to make its admissions process public for the first time. In the freshman class of 1991, Asian students outnumbered whites for the first time in the school's history.

One reason many highly selective universities in the 1960s moved so quickly to embrace affirmative action was in part to distance themselves from the ceiling quotas they applied to Jews early in the first half of the 20th century. But a mathematical implication of making elite universities “look like America” is that caps, as well as floors, would have to be put on the attendance of various subgroups. Unsurprisingly, this is not a topic much discussed by supporters of affirmative action.

Also, the racial balance of America is changing, and in ways that will undoubtedly make this issue considerably more contentious than in the past. Carol Swain, a black professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, is (in my opinion, presciently) warning that the current trend of high immigration and minority preferences when combined do not augur well for race relations in the U.S.:

We've entered into a new situation in America these days. As demographics are shifting, the white population is in decline [in percentage terms], and the percentage of minorities eligible for racial preferences is rapidly increasing.

Professor Swain cites the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies projection that racial and ethnic minorities will constitute at least 47 percent of the U.S. population by the year 2050. The good professor maintains that the impending minority status of white Americans is prompting a visible (and highly undesirable) increase in white racism, which is taking the form of what she describes as “white nationalism.” One doesn’t have to agree with the professor on every detail of her predictions (which you can read more about here) to realize the notion of a sizable white majority is and has always been a critical, if hidden, assumption underlying affirmative action. Take the emotional comfort of majority status away, and postulate a white minority being taxed to support social services for a nonwhite majority (that also enjoys a variety of racial preferences in education, hiring, etc.) and American politics could easily become very nasty indeed. I don’t think we want to go there.

To avoid this particularly unpalatable future, Swain notes, along with many, many others who have polled on the question, that there is far more public support for a class-based, race-neutral affirmative action policy than the current race-based policy. She also takes the somewhat more daring position that

Those who have voluntarily emigrated to the United States and are no part of America's racial past have no right to special consideration.

On that note, I’ll close my discussion of race-based affirmative action. I think it simply does not fit in with the long term traditions or best-interests of this country. In my next posting, I’ll discuss how a low-socioeconomic affirmative action program would work and why I think we should move to adopt such a program.



posted by Friedrich at May 17, 2003


Friedrich, I'm so disappointed in you! I thought we'd come to a nice agreement that universities (especially private ones) should be allowed to admit whomever they wish, in whatever proportions they wish, and then you come out with this!

Whence comes your newfound meritocratic zeal, may I ask? Reading this entry, I'm constantly flabbergasted by the way in which you seem to simply assume that the best way to admit people to selective universities would be to just base it on SAT tests -- how dull that world would be! Remember, too, that 25% of "toll free" applicants to Harvard don't get in -- and they have 1600 SATs. Shouldn't we be taking up our rhetorical cudgels on their behalf?

Fact is, there are all manner of factors which universities can and should take in to account in deciding who gets in and who doesn't. SAT scores are one, of course, as are athletic ability and -- never forget -- the chances that your parents might donate large sums to the endowment fund. There's also friendliness, articulacy, that vague but crucial thing called promise... and, of course, there's race. Elite universities might well have very good reasons why they want to see more black faces in their classrooms, and, indeed, they might have bad reasons too. But it doesn't make sense to me for you to try to second-guess those reasons and then come up with rebuttals to them: why aren't you second-guessing all the other criteria which universities use in admissions as well? What is it that irks you so much about affirmative action especially? I'm sure that your proposals for letting in more poor students will make a lot of sense, but why are these things mutually exclusive? Why can't "low socioeconomic status" simply take its place alongside all the other factors that universities consider when deciding whether or not to admit a student?

Personally, I think that the days when universities are generally considered to be meritocratic are coming to an end -- at least if by a meritocracy you mean something quantifiable with SAT scores. Meritocracy is just as invidious as any other system, including the one which lasted up to and including the years when George W Bush was a C student at Yale and got in because of his last name. Some great students do very well on SATs, and some don't, and I think the latter deserve more breaks.

So let's not whale on affirmative action because it means that we fall short of some meritocratic ideal: let's embrace it as a move away from the tyranny of the SAT, and try to move even further away in all manner of other ways as well. Sound like a good idea to you?

Posted by: Felix on May 17, 2003 11:32 PM


I'm sorry if I disappointed you with this post, but frankly you disappoint me with your response. This post was very difficult to write, not only emotionally but because the arguments surrounding affirmative action are so damn squishy. Frankly, the biggest surprise I got researching this post is the extent to which opponents of affirmative action are virtually the only people trying to bring any degree of intellectual rigor to the discussion. I won't hide the fact that a good deal of my distrust of affirmative action derives from the rapid "mutability" of arguments brought out by its supporters in its behalf. "You don't like that argument--hey, sit down, I got a thousand of 'em." In short, knock down one pro-affirmative action argument, and the debate suddenly switches to another front. So when you come back with what amounts to "let's keep everything nice and fuzzy and let the university administrators get on with whatever it is they do behind closed doors, and don't tell us 'cause we really don't want to know," you're not really advancing this discussion, pro or con.

I deliberately refrained from getting into the whole topic of the meritocracy in this posting, because it would add considerable length to an overly long posting and because, on another level, it's irrelevant. As I attempted to point out in my discussion of argument #5, the facts of the matter are that highly selective universities, insofar as they deal with the education of young people at all (in many ways, not their core mission), are factories for inspecting and validating the intellectual horsepower and ambition of their students. That's what highly selective colleges do; that's what pays the bills--at the educational arms of these institutions, at any rate. You can like "meriticracy" or dislike it, but that won't change the facts on the ground. And university administrators who pooh-pooh meritocracy are monstrous hypocrites; it sits smack in the middle of their business plans.

Given a solid core of such "meritocratic" students, highly selective colleges can offer "coat-tail" benefits to others such as athletes, children of rich people who might be big time donors, etc. Like any institution, highly selective colleges ladle out these coat-tail benefits according to their internal calculus of self-interest. One of the items in that calculus of self-interest is repairing the damage to their moral authority caused by their racial and religious bigotry in the past. However, as I point out, the way in which they are handling the form of ladling known as affirmative action may have terrible consequences for society in the coming decades. Ergo, as relucant as I am ordinarily to poke about in the moral/financial bowels of private organizations, the fact is that highly selective universities play a significant symbolic role in the public life of America, and their failures are likely to have impacts far beyond their own doors. (And if the actions of the Ivys--which don't, after all, pay taxes because it's assumed they are serving a vital public function and which are likewise very large scale R&D labs for the U.S. government--are weighty in this regard, then think how much more important it is for highly selective public instititutions like the University of Michigan to treat issues of racial equity fairly. Despite the urgings of university administrators to the public to just sit back and let them handle the issue, it really is too important to be left to such self-interested professionals.

I mean really, Felix, if a road-building contractor engaged in overtly racist personnel policies on its job sites, would you argue that the U.S. government should just turn a blind eye and keep handing them orders for more superhighways?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 18, 2003 12:53 AM

Thanks for your response, Friedrich; you won't be surprised to hear I'm not convinced.

I daresay you're right about the side of the discussion with the more intellectual rigor -- so long as you narrowly define "the discussion" to mean precisely what opponents of affirmative action want it to mean. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you looked at the whole question of undergraduate admissions in toto, affirmative action would be seen as just one of dozens of inefficiencies and weirdnesses, many of which make very little sense. (See athletics scholarships for a prime example: I won't get into the details of why the vast majority make no sense here, but you can if you want.) One then has to continue looking at the system in toto, and construct some kind of normative ideal to which the universities should be aspiring. Then, finally, one can ask "how do we get there from here". In contrast, opponents of affirmative action spend a lot of effort narrowly circumscribing the issue, making sure that affirmative action, and only affirmative action, is the topic on which 95% of the debate is centered.

You might respond that such monomania is justified on the grounds that "affirmative action may have terrible consequences for society in the coming decades"; I don't buy it. I think that was one of the weakest parts of your original posting: even if non-hispanic whites will constitute a minority of the US in three generations' time (which I doubt, but I'll grant you the hypo), the existence or otherwise of affirmative action programmes in the nation's universities is not going to make the slightest bit of difference on the question of whether or not some American Jean-Marie Le Pen or Jorg Haider cruises onto the political scene. Martin Amis once wrote, and I think he's right, that we are all racist; that we are all less racist than our parents; and that we are all more racist than our children. I am optimistic about the future of race relations in this country, purely on a teleological level: they've been getting steadily better since Jim Crow, and I see no evidence that the tide is turning. (On the contrary, episodes such as the Trent Lott affair would tend to back up my thesis.) The existence or otherwise of racist tensions in society has actually very little to do with demographics: I don't think there's any correlation between such feelings and the degree of racial heterogeneity in a society. (See the racist societies in Poland, China and Japan for prime examples.)

As for the normative ideal, you write that

highly selective universities, insofar as they deal with the education of young people at all, are factories for inspecting and validating the intellectual horsepower and ambition of their students. That's what highly selective colleges do; that's what pays the bills--at the educational arms of these institutions, at any rate.

It's not clear to me whether you're saying just that this is how it is, or whether you're saying that this is how it should be. But it is clear to me that if you're going to make a case that affirmative action is a bad thing, you need to have some ideal of where you want to go before you start marching off in one particular direction. And this is not a direction in which I'm particularly happy travelling. In any case, I think you're wrong: what pays the bills is a combination of reputation and tuition fees. Reputation is not an effect of the selectivity of the undergraduate admissions process: it's a cause of it. Reputation comes from research prowess, primarily, and from very long tradition. Such universities might "inspect and validate the intellectual horsepower and ambition of their students," but there's no particular reason why the students thus inspected and validated should be the ones with the highest SATs.

I'll try and keep this discussion to universities, and not road-builders, so I won't respond directly to your final question about "overtly racist policies". But I will note that you're implying that affirmative action is one such policy. I don't think it is. It depends a bit on how you define "racist", of course, but the bandying around of the word is usually designed to conjure up images of morally repugnant discrimination against racial minorities. Clearly, that's not what's going on here.

Posted by: Felix on May 18, 2003 01:07 PM

I was too worked up to post on this yesterday, as I've felt the sting of affirmative action in regard to universities myself.

Not on the admissions side, my SATs were high enough that I got in where ever I wanted, but in funding.

Had I been anything other than a white, male, middle class computer science major, I would have been inundated with scholarships.

Unfortunately, my parents were more interested in buying more boats and cars than in student loans, so I ended up dropping out of a mediocre state college from boredom (black sheep in Mormon families get cut no slack).

I wasn't a member of a formally disadvantaged group, and therefore ended up getting shafted by my families greed and religious bigotry. I was a mandatory admit to Cambridge and Oxford, and equivalent schools in the US.

One financial aid officer said off the record "you're fucked".

At best, had my family been more supportive, I could have hoped to accrue a massive debt load.
Had I been female, the world would have been my oyster. Or if my Cherokee ancestors had been one generation closer.

Sour grapes? Bitter? Hell yes.

And I'm not the only angry white male I know who has sat back and watched everyone but us get a leg up due to the sins of our fathers.

I blame it all mostly on collective boomer greed and guilt.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 18, 2003 07:51 PM

David, you say that

1) "I was a mandatory admit to Cambridge and Oxford, and equivalent schools in the US";

2) That had you been female, these schools would have been falling over each other to give you scholarships.

I don't believe you on either count. Mainly because I don't believe that there's any such thing as a "mandatory admit" to Cambridge, Oxford or the Ivies; and because as far as I know there's no pressure at all on scholarship administrators to give more aid to girls than boys. Can you back up either of these assertions?

Posted by: Felix on May 18, 2003 08:17 PM

Mr. Mercer:

Sorry to hear about your situation. I hope things have gotten better since your college days.

Mr. Salmon:

I understand that we can go back and forth on this like a ping pong tournament and not convince each other, but let me have one more volley just to even things up and I'll retire to write the second half of this damn thing. (I feel a bit hagridden.)

To me, your view of race relations seems ungrounded in anything other than personal opinion. Are you an optimist in this regard because you really see things in such a sunny light, or because such a point of view makes it a lot more comfortable to indulge in race-oriented social engineering? A quote from Martin Amis is not exactly gold standard proof that everything is hunkey-dorey racially speaking in the USA; have you ever seen the polls on just how popular affirmative action is?(Let's cut to the chase: racial preferences for non-whites are seriously unpopular among the white community.) Despite your statement that race relations are on an unstoppably upward course, I note the increasingly close affiliation of white men (and white married women) with the Republican Party, as well as the giggling delight with which the Democrats view Latino immigration; (check out "The Coming Democratic Majority" on the Democratic party's "if you can't drum up a voting majority domestically, just import one" strategy if you doubt me.) Like it or not, the political parties are beginning to split more and more cleanly along racial lines, and issues like affirmative action are going to get more, not less, divisive. I doubt this is a good thing, and I question if the benefit to a few thousand middle-class black and Latino students (today) is really worth the "burr under the saddle" effect when majority/minority tensions get a bit more substantive tomorrow. Especially since much of the same end result (with considerably more "social justice") is available by going to low socio-economic affirmative action.

Also, I believe you are quite mistaken when you say:

...what pays the bills [at highly selective colleges] is a combination of reputation and tuition fees. Reputation is not an effect of the selectivity of the undergraduate admissions process: it's a cause of it. Reputation comes from research prowess, primarily, and from very long tradition. Such universities might "inspect and validate the intellectual horsepower and ambition of their students," but there's no particular reason why the students thus inspected and validated should be the ones with the highest SATs.

Indulge me with several reasons why I disagree:

(1) Yes, "research prowess" plays a major role in a university's reputation--as a R&D contractor for the U.S. government or private industry. Why it would have any impact on the career prospects of Harvard's graduates is beyond me. (It's not like the heavyweight researchers have anything to do with undergraduates, and professors are not granted tenure for anything as trivial as being excellent pedagogues.) Do you really think an employer--other than, possibly, another research institution--gives a hoot about the "research prowess" of Harvard's professoriat when he's deciding to hire a Harvard graduate? Being an employer, I think not. What the employer is looking for are people who are smart, hardworking, disciplined and ambitious. A prospective employee offers his or her status as a Harvard graduate because it is a strong indication that he or she is all of these things. Students pay the very high tuition at highly selective institutions like Harvard because it pays off for them in salary over their working life; and this nice relationship (for both the student and Harvard) only works as long as the students can deliver the--perhaps sadly--meritocratic goods out in the working world. Or, let me suggest a thought experiment: keep Harvard's professoriat intact and deliberately admit no one with an SAT score above, say 1100. See how long Harvard's reputation with employers will last, based on their deep respect for Harvard's "research prowess."

(2) The average Harvard student in the early 1950s had an SAT score approximately one standard deviation above the average American. Harvard students have SAT scores in the early 21st century that are three and, I believe, pushing four standard deviations above the average American. Is this trend explainable because Harvard's reputation became so much better as a research institution over those 50 years? (It stayed excellent, but I doubt it improved.) Or did it somehow become much more filled with tradition during those fifty years? (Not likely, given that it was already some three centuries old.) I would offer that Harvard sensibly exploited its 1950s prestige to select for high SAT students, creating a "virtuous cycle" in which its validation to its students became more valuable the more strictly meritocratic it became. This has permitted Harvard to increase its tuition charges by three or four fold in real terms during that period. If it had not gotten more meritocratic (in exactly the sense you seem to dislike), there's no way people would be paying that high a freight to go there--research prowess be damned. And if you doubt me, note that Harvard's admissions process is distinctly more meritocratic today--in the early 1950s Harvard's students came from a very cosy New England prep-school world, who slid virtually without obstacle into Harvard's dormitories. The odds of admission if one's father had gone to Harvard were 90%! It ain't that way in 2003, baby.

(3) I think your whole opposition to the SAT (as well as that of most people on the left) arises from a confusion of cause and effect. The SAT is not some weirdo test that has magically enchanted the world and ruined higher education. Rather, the increasing importance of technology to the economy, the increase in cognitively demanding tasks in areas like finance and marketing, the declining importance of your personal background to your job performance (three cheers for ruthless capitalism!) and similar trends have made it clear to American businesses that they need smart people--and smart in very much a IQ test, SAT test kind of way. If the SAT didn't exist, American business would invent it. (Or, I suppose, they'd just be using IQ tests.) Focusing rage on the test is sort of a displaced, visceral reaction against the evolution of society over the past 50 years. I'm not suggesting you have to like that evolution, but simply that you ought to direct your animus more accurately at the cause, not the effect.

(4) I'm not sure that my opinion on how colleges ought to evolve is all that relevant. The fact is (albeit unpleasant to me) that most people are far more interested in money than in ideas, art, culture, etc., and a money-driven university education will look a lot like a "meritocracy." It's not my idea of a good time, but I'm not Superman and I can't change the course of mighty (sociological) rivers.

Okay, I'll be quiet now.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 19, 2003 03:00 AM

In 1989, a 1400 SAT I score would get you into Oxford or Cambridge.

There were a very few American scholarships for American undergraduates to go there. They were just the top of my list, along with ETH.

But that's not really why I was so upset, it was that the scholarship and grant situation was the same at all of the American schools.

Had everything about me been the same, except my gender or race, I would have had a smorgasbord of scholarships available for schools in the US.

So don't be surprised when white male children kiss their parents ass and become the next generation of Evil Opressors, because if they don't, they are out in the cold as far as college money, at least so far as getting enough of it to attend anywhere that's not a joke.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 19, 2003 03:09 AM

Friedrich: I missed this on my first read of you latest post above: "I note the increasingly close affiliation of white men (and white married women) with the Republican Party."

Yes, small-l libertarians, and some progressives have been driven into the arms of the neocons by recent foreign affairs, and some have started working towards things like ending the drug war from within the right.

This could all lead to an increasingly Imperial and very white Right in America, with a broader base than the Republicans now enjoy. Ending the drug war and granting broader gay rights alone could very seriously remove many demographics objections to the GOP.

Openly break the ban on the militarization of space (look to Rutan, Bezos and Xcor for vehicles, not NASA), and you've got the makings for the sort of shenanigans by the right that the loony left decry as real today but which are merest fantasy.

Tossing in the kind of panopticon state that is developing in Britain (and that Ashcroft would love, and the Chinese would have no objections to), and we are indeed headed for some very interesting times.

911 was the true start of the 21st Century, and it's shaping up to look at LEAST as weird as all the scifi novels always promised, for good or ill.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 19, 2003 05:41 AM

Hey Friedrich -- most sorry to hear you're feeling hagridden. So I'll not go on at length here. But I was interested in what you had to say about college tuition, and its correlation with selectivity. I did a quick google search, and I found a web site which has all of the colleges' admissions rates.

It turns out that fully 59 colleges charge more than $25k a year, while only four charge more than $30k. Want to know what those are? Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT? Er, no. They're Landmark College, Vermont; Rollins College in Florida; Full Sail Real World Education, also in Florida; and the Texas Culinary Academy. Bring the bar down to $27,500 and we finally get a university you might have heard of: George Washington University in DC.

In the narrow range between $25,000 and $27,499, then, we have 54 universities. Yes, Stanford, Princeton and Yale are there, but so are Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA and Union College of Schenectady, New York.

And where's Harvard? Oh, Harvard is one of the second-tier universities which comes up in the $22,500 to $24,999 sesarch. I'm not entirely sure how this works, since rack-rate tuition at Harvard, according to the very same website, is $29,060: it's probably something to do with the average amount that students actually pay, which will be decreased by Harvard's enormous endowment.

But whatever the glitches are surrounding Harvard specifically, the point remains: the top top universities don't charge significantly more than dozens of other colleges around the country. People would pay just as much to go to Harvard as they do now even if it remained at 1950s levels of meritocraticness, if that's a word. Your point about Harvard's real increase in tuition over those years is disingenuous, since it compares Harvard's prices not to those of other universities, but to the, um, Consumer Price Index, which is made up of things like bananas and televisions. If anything, I would guess that the "Harvard premium" has actually gone down in percentage terms, not up.

And if employers really thought the way you think they think, they'd pay more attention to SAT scores than to which university people went to. Do they? No.

As for your pessimism w/r/t racial politics, the fact that whites are becoming more Republican does not mean that "the political parties are beginning to split more and more cleanly along racial lines". The Republican party is making a concerted effort to attract Hispanics, while the Democratic party is still extremely white, and will be for the foreseeable future. You've made lots of assertions that racial politics are going to deteriorate in future; I disagree because they haven't deteriorated up until now, and I see no reason for that trend to change. Oh, that and the fact that your evidence for your downbeat prognostication is simply not convincing. But that's a different debate, one which I think we should avoid for the time being.

Posted by: Felix on May 19, 2003 09:12 AM

I think Friedrich's argument carries some water, in terms of purely racial preferences. However, I also agree that a world divided SOLELY by SAT score and grade point would be a dull and not very stimulating world, and experiences outside the classroom are often (clubs, debate societies,amateur theater, etc.) what make college memorable, in addition to the specific classroom activites. So, some "mixing of the ingredients" may still be desirable by admissions officers, even if there is a "behind closed doors" element to it. Back to Michael's point---dividing the world according to geographic background, perfect pitch, soccer abilities, kids who worked on the yearbook in highschool, may have some benefits which are not objectively measured but are very real nonetheless. (I believe some of the complaint about the Ivy education is the lack of "fun" and "diversity" of the student body, not the lack of stimulating instruction, or the fact that too few white males were admitted).

Although I agree that David sounds like he had a bad deal in his college years, I gingerly submit that a qualified white male is not saying he was "entitled" to a first-tier college education, was he? One of the big arguments against preferences is the objection to the notion that ANYONE is "entitled"---african americans as recompense for slavery, women as recompense for the old boys' network, white men...just for being smart white men? I mean, plenty of african americans have parents not interested enough in education to put forth any dollars for their children's tuition. I don't know that any admission process can (or should try to) equalize the parental-interest element.

Posted by: annette on May 19, 2003 01:24 PM

Exactly annette, you can't factor parental interest in well. But when everyone and their sister was being treated as if they were entitled, and their was nothing for the white male with disinterested parents, it felt like a kick in the teeth.

I've come more and more over the years to view many social problems in the US as more of a class thing that is being masked by racial agitation, than it is actually about race.

And affirmative action, whether in college admissions or funding, or in hiring and firing, is doing nothing but further mask the real issues, and build white male resentment.

See racial politics in Malaysia or India for some perspectives on how this can unfold. It generally leads to MORE, not less, genuine racism.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 19, 2003 03:38 PM

It would be better to be anti-affirmative action, yet also for the class kind, which is divisive along another series of lines. It is not chosen because the high-achieving low-income are almost never in the disadvantaged minority groups. Affirmative action applies to immigrants and the physically handicapped; these facts demonstrate that the policy is not compensatory. The courts do not claim that sort of excuse. The only plausible remaining reason for the use of aggression to impose racial quotas is to set these populations into heightened conflict; officials may predict power to flow from that. Moral progress is on the side of being more anti-quota.

Posted by: john s bolton on April 22, 2004 10:58 PM

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