College admissions should be about fulfilling institutions’ missions—affirmative action can help them do it

Demonstrators take part in a rally at the U.S. Supreme Court as the affirmative action in university admissions case was being heard at the court in Washington December 9, 2015. The Court was hearing arguments on Wednesday over race-based admissions at the University of Texas in a highly charged dispute that could reverberate nationwide. The justices revisited the case of Abigail Fisher, a 25-year-old white woman rejected for admission by the flagship campus in Austin in 2008. She argued that a University of Texas affirmative-action policy unconstitutionally favored blacks and Hispanics. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court is set once again to discuss affirmative action, decades-old debates have flared up about whether the policy is fair. Some, like plaintiffs in the SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC cases, say considering race in admissions to ensure a quorum of Black, Latino, and Native American students admitted is unfair to white and Asian American applicants. Others say it is unfair to Black, Latino, and Native American students not to consider race in admissions. After all, these groups have historically been excluded from top colleges, and ongoing systemic racism in American society continues to lead to racially unequal educational opportunities for kids.

But “fairness” is entirely the wrong question to be asking. It assumes that selective colleges are selecting the “best,” most deserving applicants in an individualist meritocratic competition—as if there is one, agreed-upon thing (or set of things) that defines an applicant’s deservingness. Curiously, we generally understand that employees are chosen based on what a company needs, not because they are more deserving or objectively better than other applicants for the job. But we rarely apply the same logic when it comes to college admissions.

We would do better to acknowledge the reality that the job of the admissions office is not to select some uniform “best” applicants, but to make decisions that further the organizational needs of the university. In fact, this is already what colleges do anyway. Colleges do not simply move through the list of applicants, admitting students in order of their achievements. And often their decisions give greater weight to considerations that make privileged applicants seem more worthy than those less privileged.

Take the example of money. Like all organizations, colleges must balance their budgets. This means most colleges bank on admitting more students from rich families (who can pay full tuition) than from poor, working, or even middle-class families. It also means they give an admissions boost to children of parents who make substantial donations, or who are “legacies” (children of alumni of the college). Most of us certainly would not agree that these considerations are part of selecting students most “deserving” of an education at a college that has more applicants than seats.

Beyond the finance and development offices, many admissions officers respond to coaches, who recruit excellent athletes whose grades may not compare to non-athlete admitted students. And college administrators like to boast that they have “students from every state in the country,” so admissions offices often make sure to admit at least one student from those sparsely populated states in the Midwest, giving applicants from those places a boost in admissions, too.

The list of interests on campus that admissions officers must satisfy is long. So rather than asking whether college admissions is fair, the question we should be asking is whether these interests are ones that further the mission of a college. College admissions is indeed broken, but the solution is not to search for some mythical “perfect” system in which we are magically able to assess applicants’ qualities in the context of the opportunities they’ve had in life and reject those who are somehow less deserving. Instead, colleges should take a close and careful look at their raison d’etre and align their admissions policies with their mission.

When we consider mission, it becomes clear that affirmative action is critical to the work that most colleges do. Most of us understand that teaching and research are key aspects of the mission of colleges. But many colleges also name contributing to the public good and promoting social mobility as part of their mission.

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed this view. In a 2003 decision that allowed affirmative action to continue, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, recognized the importance of having diverse leadership so that everyone in society sees that leadership as legitimate. Given the continued lack of diversity in leadership in the U.S. today, affirmative action clearly still has a role to play in cultivating a more diverse leadership.

Affirmative action makes sense for social mobility as well.  Researchers have shown that attending a more selective college matters the most for Black, Latino, and first-generation students in terms of future earnings. This mechanism for social mobility is important given that median white wealth in the United States is eight times that of average Black wealth. Growing up in a high income family is a much stronger guarantee of high income in adulthood for white than for Black Americans, so affirmative action even for Black and Latino children of professionals can boost social mobility.

To be sure, colleges still need to make ends meet—without staying afloat, there is no mission-work to be done. But when colleges consider where to spend dollars, what to ask donors to support, and whom to admit, foregrounding social mobility and contributions to society is likely to lead to different decisions than the ones currently made.

Instead of fumbling along, responding to numerous campus interests in a piecemeal way and meekly defending affirmative action as a policy that somehow “corrects” the individualist meritocracy that colleges purport to administer, selective colleges should take a much stronger stance. That includes: pointing to their goals and mission and how affirmative action aligns with them; discarding policies that clearly don’t align and scaling back those that are weakly aligned; and doubling down on financial aid and decreasing costs to facilitate yielding a student body much more akin to the class and racial makeup of young adults in the United States today. When they do so, colleges will stop fueling the fervent myth of meritocracy in the United States.

Natasha Warikoo is Lenore Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Tufts University and author of Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions.