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Harvard Students Are Better Than You
Fairness in elite college admissions is an oxymoron
Affirmative Action, I am told, ended the other day. Best wishes to those who celebrate.
Look, don't get me wrong. I agree with the decision on the merits. On the legal specifics of this matter, Neil Gorsuch—though, I must add, neither Clarence Thomas nor John Roberts—speaks for me. But I can't quite muster up the enthusiasm I see some expressing about the ruling.
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First, there's the practical side of things. Coercion can only change unwilling institutions so much. Virtually everyone at every level of admissions at every selective university prioritizes racial diversity in incoming classes and is willing to make significant trade-offs elsewhere in line with that priority. Paradoxically, affirmative action is less disruptive the more blatant it is. Hard race quotas mean universities can reach their goals by selecting the highest performers of each race. Ban the simple approach, though, and they don't suddenly settle for admitting a radically different population of students. They simply make their admissions criteria more opaque, more arbitrary, and more Holistic in order to arrive at the race distributions they want.
More than that, I admit to some skepticism that colorblindness at all levels of society works, or that merit devoid of values considerations is the right way to select every prestige position. When it comes to roles like politicians and community leaders, who someone cares about and what they prioritize matters at least as much as what they know or what they can do. America gets myopic about its public policy at times, as if it's the only country that's had to solve some of the problems it faces, as if its black-white race relations are the only race issues in the world.
When I reviewed Lee Kuan Yew's history of Singapore some time ago, I was struck by the complexity and the tension of race relations there: major race riots early in his tenure, longstanding performance gaps between Chinese and Malays, a country divided by four major languages, three major religions, and between several races. Some of the solutions practiced there, such as race quotas in neighborhoods and elected office, would be unthinkable in the aspirationally color-blind America. Others, like the ways Lee went to community leaders of different racial groups in the country to get buy-in and seek solutions for apparently intractable problems, seem eminently sensible. However one thinks race relations ought to be in America, color-blindness is not how they are—topically, the US black community is very much a community, and color-blindness enforced by fiat seems doomed to fail if it means simply asking people within that community to accept near-total exclusion from the most prestigious institutions in the country if that's how the cards fall.
Given all of that, hearing some prestige university arguments for affirmative action in non-technical positions, I find myself almost persuaded.
Almost. And then I see the chart that gives the game away, the chart that should be seared into the mind of every observer to the affirmative action debate, the chart showing how Asian-American applicants received systematically worse subjective ratings than otherwise equally qualified students:
Why, if the goal was to ensure representation of vulnerable or historically discriminated against populations—why precisely did Harvard and other top universities use "holistic" factors to ensure Asian Americans had to climb a steeper objective hill not just than under-represented minority students, but than all others?
Well, just what sort of business do you think Harvard is in?
2. Harvard's Business
You don't get to be in the position Harvard is without understanding certain games on a deep institutional level, without playing them better than all others. Harvard is no mere technical school, seeking to train domain experts in rigorous ways. No. It's an Ivy League School, and more than that, it's Harvard. Its mission is not to find the best, but to define the best. And with all due respect to Yale and new upstart Stanford, it's been the best in that business since before the founding of the United States. It comes from the heritage and culture of the old British elite, the Oxfords and Cambridges and Etons of the world.
Harvard students, put simply, are better than you. This isn't me saying this, mind: it's the whole holistic edifice of university admissions and university rankings, the Supreme Court and the halls of Congress, really every prestige institution in the country. Ask McKinsey or Deloitte if you need convincing. Check where your professors went to school. Run up to a random passerby on the street and see what they think of a Harvard degree. Like it or not, it's a near-universal symbol of competence.
Some are better than you because of their heritage, some because of their wealth, some because of their connections. Some, in part, because of their race: you cannot maintain credible elite institutions with few black people sixty years after the civil rights movement. And, yes, some because of their academics, their intelligence and their work ethic. What sort of elite would it be, after all, if it did not pay lip service to the ideal of meritocracy that inspires so many of the hoi polloi, did not reassure them that academic skill, too, would be counted among its holistic ranking? Most, to be clear, have a combination of the above, a mix precisely in line with Harvard's dreams. Admit just the right set to render your institution legitimate as the elite.
I've met many Harvard students by now, and to be frank, it was almost always clear quite rapidly why they were attending Harvard while I was not. I'll give their admissions team this: they're good at their jobs. It's comforting to imagine some sort of cosmic balancing, where aptitude in one domain is balanced by struggle in another, but Nature is crueller than that. I won't claim every Harvard student is peerless. But they are, by and large, an extraordinarily impressive group of young people, by any measure. That's what happens when you spend several centuries building a reputation as the best of the best. It is a true signal of excellence, one that any individual, rational, ambitious actor should pursue.
For twelve years, every student in the country toils away in a system shouting egalitarianism at every turn. Look at policy priorities and school budgets and you'll see it: an earmark for the disadvantaged here, a special program there, an outpouring of funding for special education in this district, and of course classroom after classroom where teachers patiently work with the students who just need a bit of extra help.
Then comes admissions season, and with a wink and a nod, the system strips away the whole veneer and asks, "So, just how well did you play the game? ...you were aware you were playing the game, yes?"
Let us not mince words: the role of holistic college admissions is to examine people as whole individuals, to account for every second of their lives and every bit of their cultural context, and to rank them from best to worst. Or, more precisely: to justify and to reify the values Harvard and its co-luminaries use to select best and worst. Not just the most capable academics, mind: are you telling me you want a campus full of nerds? Please. Leave that to MIT and Caltech.
I don't want to be reduced to just a number, you say. Very well, Harvard responds, we will judge the whole of you and find you wanting. Is that better?
Let us return to the question, then: why does Harvard discriminate against Asians?
Set aside every bit of high-minded rhetoric, even understanding that most who give noble justifications have convinced themselves of those justifications. Set aside every bit of idealism, even understanding that most at every level of education are indeed idealists. Harvard discriminates against Asians because it is not just an elite school, but the elite school, and Asians are simply not elite enough.
I try to be cautious in using the phrase "systemic racism"—I find it often abused past the breaking point. But as I've said in terser form before, if you want a pure example of the term, and a pure demonstration of just what game Harvard is playing, look no further than its treatment of Asian Americans. Elite values—the true values underlying an institution like Harvard—are never fully legible and never fully set. In easy cases, they align with the values trumpeted on the surface: we value intelligence, we value hard work, we want to give everyone an equal shot.
One problem: Asian Americans came along and took those values a bit too seriously. They started gaming the system by taking it earnestly at face value and working to align with explicit institutional values. But admit too many, and the delicate balance is upset, the beating heart of elite culture animating the whole project disrupted. Academics-focused students, after all, lack social development and, as Harvard infamously argued in the case, simply have bad personalities.
Harvard's been around long enough to have played this game a few times before. When a new group gets too good at understanding and pursuing the explicit values it uses to grant its project the veneer of legitimacy, it smiles, thanks them for their applications, and then changes its process.
As sociologist Jerome Karabel documents, this is in fact the original inspiration for holistic admissions. From The New Yorker:
The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard’s freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate . . . because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.” [...] Finally, Lowell—and his counterparts at Yale and Princeton—realized that if a definition of merit based on academic prowess was leading to the wrong kind of student, the solution was to change the definition of merit.
As public values change, the conception of "elite" changes with them. Harvard and its co-luminaries do not quarrel with each change in turn. They simply adopt them, embrace them, and embody them. In the '50s and '60s, this meant (again per the above New Yorker article) Yale accepting a mediocre academic who seemed like "more of a guy" than his competitors, proudly noting the proportion of six-footers, and watching out for troubling homosexual tendencies. In the 1980s, it meant disapproving notes from Harvard admissions about "shyness," a student seeming "a tad frothy," and one poor soul who was "short with big ears."
In 2023, it means hyperfocusing on one particular, often self-contradictory, frame of Diversity, on preaching ideals of egalitarianism, social justice, and inclusivity quite at odds with its pedigree. And yes, it means that Asians have stellar academics and extracurriculars but, alas, inviting too many would wreck the vibe.
What galls about this all—and look, how could it not?—what galls is the hypocrisy. What galls is watching some of the most elitist and exclusive institutions in the country preach inclusiveness while closing their doors to all but a minute fraction of those who apply, preach egalitarianism while serving as the finishing schools of the most privileged.
If the leaders of Harvard and Yale truly believed in the values they espouse, they would tear their schools to the ground, stone by stone, brick by brick. If the administrators and student body truly, in their heart of hearts, believed in a philosophy of egalitarian inclusiveness rather than the image of themselves as the deserving elite, nothing would be left of either by tomorrow morning.
These schools are elite, through and through. They are elite by heritage, by tradition, by definition. Their existence is justified and given meaning by their elitism. Every other value they espouse comes second to that purpose, and every nod towards egalitarianism and fairness in their admissions serves simply to justify that elitism to the public.
To be clear: there will always be an elite. I am not, personally, a terribly devout egalitarian. In broad philosophy if not always in specifics, I admire the MITs, the Caltechs, the Stuyvesants of the world. Excellence is nothing to be ashamed of, and I respect few schools more than those that strive unapologetically for academic excellence. You know the ones: those inconvenient high schools that always seem to be 70% Asian of late. Building an environment of excellence takes serious work; the path to true expertise has never been anything other than arduous, and we are all made richer by institutions that understand and cherish that path.
While I respect many Harvard graduates and much of the academic work that's passed through it, I cannot pretend to any emotion beyond scorn for a school that thinks it is either possible or desirable to holistically gather All The Coolest People together while preaching the virtues of diversity and inclusion. An academic institution should have academic criteria, and an institution that claims to be the best should accept the strongest academically without hesitation.
3. Consider the Seal
Enough about Harvard. Consider, for a moment, the Navy Seals.
Military special forces are a unique lot. I had the peculiar pleasure of spending a month or so around the Air Force's brand of them during survival training—each one a tense block of adrenaline and muscle, one-upping each other in wild shows of machismo and rushing around the woods with intense energy. They are not my people, certainly, but there is plenty you cannot help but respect when you are around them, and they carve out their own peculiar spot in elite culture.
Earlier in my career, I met many more prospective special forces: a bunch of eager, cocksure muscleheads-in-training, each one certain they had what it took.
Most did not, in fact, have what it took. Nor did I, to be clear, even had I wanted that path. Some of the lads in language school participated in a "combat ready intelligence" team intended to mimic parts of the special forces training process. Feeling reasonably fit and watching a few of my friends step in, I wandered over for a training session or two, only to limp away content that my own strengths were elsewhere.
Harvard frontloads its selection process, then lays out the red carpet for its students on their path towards graduation. Add its admission rate and its graduation rate together and you land near 100%. 98% graduation rate, they boast.
Special forces are not quite so forgiving. Eligibility is simple enough: pass a clearly defined set of mental and physical fitness tests. High standards, to be clear, but nothing outlandish, and certainly nothing vague. What about once you're in, though? The BBC reports with trepidation:
The nearly 200-page report from the Naval Education and Training Command found a "near-perfect storm" of problems at the Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal course, more commonly known as BUD/S.
The 24-week course is considered extremely difficult to pass and has an attrition rate of between 70% and 85% per class. Candidates are subjected to limited sleep, cold water and constant physical exercise and combat training.
The most difficult part of the course, known as "Hell Week", sees trainees endure five-and-a-half days of training with fewer than four hours of sleep.
When your friend tells you he's about to join the special forces, by all means give a nod of encouragement and a good word, but don't hold your breath. When someone manages to push through the training process, though? There should be no doubt in your mind: they belong. The bulk of those who wash out of special forces go on, meanwhile, to serve wholly respectable careers elsewhere in the military in less tightly selected disciplines.
The Navy Seals approach is at once more egalitarian and more elite than that of Harvard. By the time entry itself is the test, something is deeply broken. What sort of twisted culture outsources its proving process to an unaccountable and illegible committee, shuffling papers and weighing numbers?
For any with eyes to see, Harvard's graduation rate should be a mark not of pride but of shame: an elite so confident in its own ability to pick winners and losers that it requires them to prove nothing at all once present, yet so determinedly exclusive as to turn away all but a tiny fraction of those who would test themselves against it.
Think you've got what it takes? Harvard asks. We'll be the judges of that.
Think you've got what it takes? ask the Seals. Prove it. You know the standard. Everyone does. Let's see what you've got.
To approximate that approach in academic institutions would take work, of course. Little would change for common institutions with the quaint egalitarian goal of teaching regular people: they will continue to practice reasonably open admissions and let people graduate at whatever rate possible while some tumble out of the pipeline as they have always done, regardless of the whims of Harvard. Top schools, though, would need serious curriculum, the resolve to enforce rigor, and the commitment to provide a glide path into less prestigious routes when (not if) students realize they would be more at home in gentler spaces.
But they want to be the best, right? Let them work for it.
4. On a Personal Note
I feel, in a deep and personal way, the frustration of those who have cried out for an end to affirmative action. Those who speak the most passionately and the most articulately on the issue are clear in what they want: a fair shot. How could I not identify with that? My parents grew up poor and without elite connections, and undergraduate degrees from local universities were already plenty to chew on. I landed in the awkward spot of having parents too well-off for real financial aid, but not well enough off that they could or would subsidize my tuition to the tune of tens of thousands a year, so I didn't even bother looking beyond state schools for undergrad. Good Mormon kids like me went to the church flagship BYU, anyway. Of course I wanted to prove myself against the best, but it was a world so alien I couldn't even imagine approaching it.
Law school applications, after my meandering path out of BYU and Mormonism, through the Air Force, and in and out a humble online school, were the first time the admissions conversation became real to me. Some small part of me, I confess, wonders if I would have gotten into my first-choice law school, the University of Pennsylvania, had I applied next cycle instead of this one. I was, after all, right on the borderline, with the test scores that have always come so easily to me not quite making up for what by any measure is a patchy and bizarre undergraduate history. The slightest nudge may have pushed me over the edge.
Shed no tears for me. I have danced around the outskirts of official institutions thus far because I am a poor fit for them, a stubbornly contrarian wanderer with little patience for credentialism and ticking boxes, a bright but thoroughly distractible dabbler who drifts between interests with the wind and who would rather become a good father than a good employee. Had I wanted to break into the Inner Circle more than anything, I would have blanketed the top law schools with applications. I chose instead to prioritize my husband and our life together, rolling the dice on a single school before landing once more in a humbler spot.
I hope to be taken seriously on education policy, so I planned to get a dual degree in policy and law for those who care about those things, but I have always worked better on my own. As for being taken seriously—look, official institutions matter. Official credentials matter. Official policy matters. Bureaucracy thrives on credentials, and someone's got to flash the right papers, say the right words, and act as "expert" to the incurious. We live in a golden age of unofficial Sensemaking, though. One of my friends, writing under an absurd pseudonym and laughing in the face of credentials, has within a few months of rising to prominence attracted the occasional attention of two of the five richest men in the world simply by being interesting. This carries its own downsides, of course—as I have told him before, he is dangerously wrong much of the time, and his rise serves as a reminder of the value of gatekeeping as much as its limitations—but if I can't convince people I have something to say in an environment like that, the fault is mine alone.
You want fairness in admissions. I get that. Who doesn't, really? But what I want much more is freedom from admissions, paths that the academically serious can take to pursue intellectual life without admissions committees shaping every facet of their lives from a distance. If you want me to prove I belong somewhere, hand me the test, tell me what it takes, and I'll stand or fail without nonsense or ambiguity. If you want to create a curriculum good enough that the degree, not the admissions, is the prize, I will applaud you.
In the meantime, one does what one can with the world one has.
5. So what happens now?
You know perfectly well what happens now.
Take a look, if you care to, at what happened at Berkeley when California banned affirmative action. Read, if you need to, the words of one who helped write its proxy criteria to get around the affirmative action ban, describing their goal of replicating the same environment in depth:
Review, if you are interested, the history of prior affirmative action bans, and the ways universities immediately and aggressively shift to using proxy criteria for race, making admissions more opaque and less predictable. Recall, should you want a reminder, the sudden, dramatic shift to test-optional admissions over the past few years.
Then, if you still wonder precisely what will happen, consult perhaps the staunchest anti–affirmative action conservative in the highest court in the land. In the words of Justice Thomas himself:
To start, universities prohibited from engaging in racial discrimination by state law continue to enroll racially diverse classes by race-neutral means. For example, the University of California purportedly recently admitted its “most diverse undergraduate class ever,” despite California’s ban on racial preferences.
The Supreme Court is not, or should not be, in the business of legislating from the bench. Those hoping for a curia ex machina to cure what ails us in elite college admissions can keep waiting. Oh, don't get me wrong: this ruling will be a headache and a half for these institutions, and every admissions officer at them is tearing their hair out right now. This ruling will spawn a litany of lawsuits and a cavalcade of complaints. For some, that may be reward enough.
It beggars belief, though, to imagine that a conservative court in a starkly polarized country could have the slightest impact on the values of one of the most consistently progressive groups in some of the most consistently progressive institutions in the country. Virtually everyone inside every top university benefits in straightforward ways from affirmative action. The strongest students have less in-university competition as a result. The students who need affirmative action to get a shot enter institutions strongly motivated to keep them around, with the promise of sterling credentials at the end, and could always attend other schools if they worry about the rigor. Administrators and students alike benefit from the holistically handpicked garden of students, designed with just the right mix of traits to suit their sensibilities. The only people with real incentive to object at all are those on the outside looking in, and not to put too fine a point on it, but nobody cares about the complaints of losers who couldn't hack it.
The game was rigged, you say? Well, yeah, it's Harvard. That's the point.
John Roberts has made his decision, Harvard administrators cry: Now let him enforce it.
In a practical sense, I regret to tell incoming college students that everything is worse now. You thought admissions criteria were getting vague before? You thought the arms race that sees teens optimizing every second of their lives, with parents paying to make them "peer-reviewed" authors, had gotten ridiculous already? See how much you like it when every hard numeric criterion each university could use threatens to reveal their excruciatingly obvious goal of continuing race-based preferences. Say what you will about Asian study culture and the Gaokao—at least a test is a single event. Oh, I'm sure people will have fun signaling the traits college admissions officers are looking for without actually possessing those traits, but if you're looking for a golden age of objectivity and academic merit in admissions, you'd be better off begging for hard race quotas than what we've got now.
To wrap back around to the Seals, then:
You cannot, now or ever, count on people who do not share your values to do your work for you. If you value academic excellence but aren't keen on the peculiar sort of self-flagellating, pseudo-egalitarian elite culture now popular at Harvard, you cannot simply impose your values by fiat on the university. Harvard was here before you and it will be here after, adapting as it needs to each new generation's elite values. That, perhaps, is the bad news.
The good news is that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps you will be happier with the state of elite college admissions after the dust settles from this ban; perhaps not. If there is truly a problem, though, there is an opportunity for those who would seize it. Excellence is self-advertising and always useful. Institutions that attract and cultivate it will always be in demand. The core problem with this whole mess, as I see it, is the fundamental absurdity of a social structure oriented around carefully planning your life to align with the favor of the
gods admissions officers. As long as admission, rather than attainment of excellence, is the prize, we are failing.
That's not a problem Harvard will solve for you, but that doesn't mean it can't be solved.
The only question remaining: Who, then, will solve it?
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