In College Admissions, Affirmative Action and Its Critics Both Have The Same Problem

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 5 2013 3:38 PM

In College Admissions, Affirmative Action and Its Critics Both Have The Same Problem  

71866258
CAMBRIDGE, MA - SEPTEMBER 12: Freshman Winston Yan enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University September 12, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Glen Cooper/Getty Images

Another day, another article about the reality of race-sensitive college admissions. But what strikes me every time the affirmative action controversy comes up in this context is that there's an underlying conceptual incoherence in the admissions process.

The background idea in American higher education seems to be that the students who are in some sense "best" should be grouped together at elite institutions where they receive more instructional resources than are given to less able students. This then raises a question of fairness if the standard construction of who the "best" students are ends up massively underrepresenting black kids relative to their share in the population. On the other hand, efforts to redress that situation raise a new specter of unfairness if some Asian kids end up in a worse school despite being "better" candidates than some of the African-American students who were admitted. There's no resolution to this conundrum that's going to be broadly acceptable, because the underlying premise makes no sense.

Advertisement

Disproportionate investment in the "best and the brightest" is a great way for China to improve its medal counts in the Olympic games. You want to identify a relatively small number of promising swimmers young in life and make sure that those promising swimmers get the best possible swim instruction. Only a handful of people win any swimming medals in any given Olympics, so if your goal is to maximize the medal count you need to concentrate your training resources on the best prospects. Helping an average swimmer go faster has no value in the quest for Olympic medals.

But higher education policy isn't like that at all. Helping the average 18 year-old learn more is a totally valid goal of higher education policy. Helping below-average 18 year-olds learn more is a totally valid goal of higher education policy. If the powers-that-be think it's useful to ability-rank 18 year-olds for pedagogical purposes, then perhaps that's correct. But the second stage of the college sorting process where more resources are expended on a UC Berkeley student than a community college student doesn't have any justification. That unfairness permeates the entire system. And because the system is unfair, there's no way to incorporate race (or not incorporate it) or to replace race with class or geography or anything else that will produce a fair outcome.

The big questions we should be asking about higher education are: "why is so much government subsidy available to self-consciously elitist private institutions?" (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and "why is the funding structure of public institutions set up to maximize investment in the students with the least educational needs?" The debate over how to best allocate slots in an unfair system is a distraction.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.

Books

Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.

Books

You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Behold
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?