Every college — even Harvard — has a right to build its own community

Every college — even Harvard — has a right to build its own community
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Imagine a world where every student has their SAT score emblazoned on their forehead. Imagine one where a person’s worth is determined by their ACT score.

Is this how we want our colleges to admit students?

A test-based dystopian future, the likes of which sound like it was created by George Orwell is, in fact, the world imagined by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that has filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for alleged racial discrimination in the college admissions process. Students for Fair Admissions argues Asian-American applicants should be admitted at a higher rate than other groups because, on average, Asian-American applicants to Harvard have higher test scores.


The strongest argument made by Students for Fair Admissions is this: Harvard admissions officers rate Asian-American applicants lower on some subjective factors, and this suggests improper racial discrimination. But things are not so straightforward: the most fascinating element of the lawsuit is the war between two experts — David Card from the University of California and Peter Arcidiacono from Duke University — whose statistical models show vastly different results. According to Card, there is little-to-no-difference between the admit rate for Asian-American and white applicants when controlling for athletic recruitment, legacy status, geography, and major, among other factors.

In coming months, the courts will decide which statistician to believe.

But the legal briefs filed by Students for Fair Admissions reveal that the group only has a passing interest in discrimination against Asian Americans. Their real agenda apparently has nothing to do with Asian Americans; they argue that Harvard is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by misusing affirmative action by deliberately advantaging African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the admissions process. Under the cover of a lawsuit defending Asian Americans, Students for Fair Admissions is arguably attempting to apply the legal standard articulated in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) that colleges must try race-neutral methods to increase diversity before resorting to race-conscious ones.

In coming years, the courts will decide whether Harvard has tried enough race-neutral alternatives. Harvard’s explanation of race-neutral alternatives is the first such explanation since Fisher and perhaps the most robust explanation filed with a court. The University of Texas won the argument in 2016, so Students for Fair Admissions are banking on a more conservative Supreme Court that will apply a more rigorous interpretation of Fisher. Could this lawsuit become the one that ends affirmative action in higher education? A change of one justice on the Supreme Court could make that happen.

But the lawsuit underscores a more immediate question for the American people: How do we want our students admitted to college?

Harvard and other selective colleges have long said that they weigh numerous characteristics in the holistic evaluation of applicants. Students for Fair Admissions successfully forced Harvard to release a trove of materials about how the university admits its students. Among the many things the public learned: Harvard considers test scores in the admissions process, but Harvard has 3,500 applicants with perfect SAT math scores and 2,200 seats in the freshman class, so other factors such as grades, leadership, athletic ability, legacy status, diversity, perseverance, geography, and sense of humor may take precedence.

The United States Constitution limits consideration of certain characteristics, such as race, in the admission process. Unsurprisingly, though, the Founding Fathers were agnostic about colleges that might want to admit students on the basis of their throwing arm, sense of humor, or challenging life experiences. Instead, each college makes its own rules.

Students for Fair Admissions wants to tell colleges who to admit. For the group, colleges are interchangeable entities where your test score is the only form of merit that matters, and it is the test score that opens the door to the “best” college. Presumably it is this dystopian worldview that led nearly 43,000 people to apply to Harvard last year. All colleges are equal but some colleges are more equal than others.

Fortunately, Harvard and other colleges do not subscribe to this worldview. Every college defines merit for itself and, as a result, creates a different community. We do not have to like each choice a college makes, but the resulting rich diversity of colleges filled with multifaceted students is a hallmark of American higher education. Thanks to Students for Fair Admissions, we got a peek behind the curtain at Harvard.

My institution is another great example. At St. John’s College, we do not require test scores and do not care about athletic prowess. We admit students who love reading great books, love discussing big ideas, and want to join the most rigorous intellectual community in the country. We find these students by doing a holistic review: assessing their transcripts, reading their essays, conducting interviews, and talking with recommenders. Our admissions process is reflective of our community — one where there are no majors and students dive deeply into vigorous intellectual discussion. St. John’s College is not a fit for every student — no college is — and that is the point of having over 5,000 colleges in this country instead of just a handful admitting students on the basis of test scores.

The stakes for this debate could not be higher for American higher education. At risk is not just the legal argument, but also the differences that make American colleges the envy of the world.

Benjamin S. Baum is Director of Admissions at St. John’s College and is a lawyer. He has previously written on legal issues in higher education for The Hill, the Journal of College and University Law, and The Journal of College Admission. The views expressed by the author are his own and not necessarily the views of his employer or The Hill.