The recent Supreme Court ruling against race-conscious university admissions has everyone thinking about racism, privilege, equity, merit, and a host of other issues. Here are some thoughts.
Most college admissions are thought of through three main lenses: Potential, merit, and diversity. I'm ignoring legacy (totally separate issue), athletics, and others that account for relatively small numbers of seats. I'm sure it's more complicated that that, but I think American society generally thinks of admissions with a mix of these three lenses.
Potential: Who *could* succeed at the institution if given the opportunity? This is perhaps the most important lens because schools want students who can succeed. This is a big set, and is not ordered. MANY more students have the ability to succeed at MIT, Stanford, and the Ivies than they admit every year.
Merit: Assuming we can give everyone a score based on a test and/or HS transcript (a combo of GPA and number of AP/IB courses), this provides a ordered list. I don't believe it's a perfect ordering because of how flawed the tests are, but it's still somewhat of an ordered list. If two students have the same grades, but one has more IB classes, then the latter is higher on the list. In case you haven't looked at the studies, SAT scores do a really bad job of predicting performance in college. Grades do a better job, but also aren't perfect.
Diversity: Most schools want some sort of diversity. I would argue that diversity brings tremendous value to most schools and to society as a whole. As a diverse society, we need scientists and doctors and lawyers and judges and politicians and writers who reflect our diversity. Individuals benefit from a wealth of diverse perspectives. Note that this isn't just racial diversity. Think about gender and economic class and athleticism and artistic talents and so on.
So, with those lenses defined, a few thoughts:
1) Some people tend to ignore the size of the Potential lens, ignore Diversity, and instead focus on the Merit lens to the exclusion of the other two. I suspect that most selective schools start with the Potential lens, (they really need students who can succeed) then look to balance Merit and Diversity.
2) Studies show mirror-image biases: Teachers tend to expect and demand less of Black students and tend to expect and demand more of Asian students. Negative perceptions of Blacks and positive perceptions of Asians become self-fulfilling prophecies.
3) Some people suggest that affirmative action's goal is a form of reparations for slavery. That is NOT the case. Affirmative action is an attempt to address the fact that institutional racism and implicit biases make it harder for Black and Brown students to climb the Merit ladder regardless of their potential. As a society, we do a terrible job of identifying and fostering academic potential in Black and Brown students.
Merit is important, but traditional (and imperfect) ways of quantifying merit should not be the only lens through which we look at college admissions.