The Affirmative Action Conversation Colleges Should Be Having

Tuesday, March 28, 2023 - As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on affirmative action yet again, the president of James Madison University, who played a key role as a lawyer in the University of Michigan's Supreme Court cases 20 years earlier, joins the show to offer historical perspective and an explanation of how the Court's decision could impact far more than just higher education admissions. This episode is made possible with support from Ascendium Education Group, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Course Hero.

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Jeff Selingo:

So here in the spring of 2023, we're waiting on US Supreme Court decisions on two significant subjects with repercussions for higher ed. One is student loan forgiveness and the other is on affirmative action in higher ed.

Michael Horn:

Jeff, I'm not sure the last time that higher ed was featured in such two prominent topics before the court. Today, we're going to talk with a former university lawyer turned college president, who once before waited for a major decision from the Supreme Court about what it's like to be in the room where it happens and what higher ed should be doing right now is it waits on this episode of Future U.


This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. For more information, visit This episode is brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success through innovation, data and information, policy and institutional transformation.

Earn continuing education units this spring with Teaching Practice, an online faculty development program from Course Hero. Over a series of asynchronous courses, you'll uncover new ways to leverage tech in the classroom and build inclusive curriculum all while supporting your own wellbeing. Plus, you'll get weekly office hours support from leading instructors. Enroll for free today at Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoy the show, share it with your friends, so they can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Jeff Selingo:

I'm Jeff Selingo.

Michael Horn:

And I'm Michael Horn. So, as we mentioned at the top of the episode, aspects of higher ed are on trial before the Supreme Court right now in a significant way. Even as there's been a lot of media attention on both, we wanted to think a bit more about not just the forthcoming decisions on diversity and admissions at Harvard and UNC from a narrow perspective of what is the impact just on admissions, but really to consider all that it might portend for higher ed in the future.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael. So, today, I think we want to look to that future by looking at the past. To help us do that, we're going to welcome Jonathan Alger, who's the president of James Madison University to Future U. Now before James Madison, Jon worked at Rutgers University, but most salient to this podcast was that before that, he was the assistant General Counsel at the University of Michigan where I first met him. It was there that he played a key role in the university's efforts in two landmark Supreme Court cases on diversity and admissions, because this is certainly not the first time that we've dealt with this issue before the court. That was in 2003.

One case involved the University of Michigan Law School. The other was Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy. These are well-known as the Grutter and Gratz cases in higher ed and as well in Supreme Court law. So, of note, during those cases, he coordinated one of the largest amicus brief coalitions in Supreme Court history. So, he's well positioned to help us think through several potential implications from the pending decisions. President Alger, Jon if we may welcome to Future U.

Jonathan Alger:

Thanks so much for having me.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Jon, just for context for our listeners, right now, we're in a period of waiting for the Supreme Court to rule in two major affirmative action cases and admissions, but unlike say in 2003 when the timeframe between the oral arguments and the ruling was less than three months, now it's going to be more like seven to eight months. The oral arguments in these cases were held back in October 31st. So, the court is expected to rule in late June on this case. But I'm curious when you go back to 2003, what you recall from that period between oral arguments and the decision itself. The oral arguments, of course, they give you somewhat of a preview maybe of major themes or thinking from the justices, but you still don't really know the decision until it's handed down.

Jonathan Alger:

Well, certainly, that was a momentous time for all of us and all eyes were on Justice O'Connor back then. We knew that she was the central swing vote and we had spent a lot of time preparing for her questions and listening very carefully to what she had to say and ask in oral argument, but we knew we had to be ready for the outcome of these cases. So, we had working groups that had been formed and were ready to adjust the admissions policies as needed. Back then at the University of Michigan, there was a case involving the law school admissions policy and of course a separate case involving the undergraduate admissions policy. So, we were ready in both of those cases to react quickly.

We had an inventory of policies and programs that might need to be reviewed beyond just those admissions policies depending on the outcome of the cases. We were in touch with colleagues and organizations all across the country that were ready to analyze the decisions and provide guidance. There were also plans that were underway for national conferences and convenings that summer because we knew the rulings would be significant and would impact higher education across the country.

Jeff Selingo:

So, Jon, let's fast forward to today then. So, it's been around four months since oral arguments. Given the makeup of the court, it seems most leaders in higher ed expect race conscious admissions to be struck down. So, if you were advising a higher education institution, what type of scenario planning would you be recommending now and maybe a little bit of what you might be doing even at James Madison?

Jonathan Alger:

Yeah, so it's an important question, Jeff. While I would certainly like to be optimistic, it really doesn't make sense to me for the court to have taken up these two cases now unless they wanted to make some statement. We know the composition of the court has changed fairly dramatically since 2003, of course. So, I think many of our institutions are reviewing their admissions policies right now, not just undergraduate by the way, but also graduate and professional programs, which are often more competitive. It's not just admissions policies and programs.

We also need to be reviewing any other programs where race might be one of the factors considered. That could be financial aid, outreach and recruitment programs, because the same general legal principles apply under Title VI, which applies to all public and private institutions that get any federal money as well as the equal protection clause, of course, that applies to public institutions. So, JMU, like many other schools, is conducting that review right now. We don't consider race as a factor in admissions, but we still need to be aware of all the potential ramifications of these cases. We're continually discussing race neutral alternatives that will help us to achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body. That was the end goal that we talked about in the Michigan cases.

A couple of other thoughts here, the Michigan cases really brought together a wide-ranging coalition in front of the Supreme Court, not just higher education, but K to 12 schools, civil rights organizations, corporations, former military leaders, et cetera. We worked across institutional lines to talk about the importance and value of diversity in our society. Ever since the Michigan cases, I've believed that we needed this coalition to work together outside the litigation context to build the pipeline to provide access to students from all backgrounds. So, I've been working with colleagues to translate that belief into action over the last 20 years. For example, we have a Valley Scholars Program here at JMU where we work with seven different local public school districts.

We identify first generation students that we think have the aptitude to go to college, but probably wouldn't without some form of intervention. We work with them in eighth grade and all through high school with mentoring and tutoring. The big carrot is they know there is a full tuition scholarship waiting for them if they keep their grades up at a certain level and get admitted to the university. It's a tremendous model that we know works. I worked on a program like this at Rutgers that still exists. At JMU, that oldest class is about to graduate from college this spring. So, those are the types of models we have to be working on, but they take time. They don't happen overnight.

Jeff Selingo:

Well, a lot of this also is how broad or narrow the decision will be, right? Because like in 2003, we have two separate cases here and there's so many ways this decision could go. So, even if people are assuming the general direction it's going to go, it could be a narrow decision. It could be a broad decision. So, how difficult does that make it for institutions to plan right now?

Jonathan Alger:

Yes, that does make it challenging to think about the different scenarios, especially with two cases, right? It's an interesting comparison back to 2003 in the Michigan cases, because again, you also had two cases that were heard simultaneously by the court offering two very different admissions models. Now, there, that was actually a deliberate choice that the university made. There was one model that was more quantitative, if you will, the point system from the undergraduate level and one that was more holistic, flexible, or qualitative you might say, which was that law school model. That really gave the court the opportunity to split the baby and choose a model it believed could meet the narrow tailoring requirement.

So, that was really a strategic choice to bring two different models in front of the court thinking that they might at least choose one of them to say, "This is what a good narrowly tailored program could look like." The challenge we have in front of us now is we have cases from two different institutions, a public and a private, which really ensures that all institutions across the higher ed landscape are going to be impacted-

Jeff Selingo:

Covered, right.

Jonathan Alger:

... by these decisions. If you look at what's happened over that 20 years since 2003, the court used the Fisher cases from the University of Texas to really clarify and tighten the standards of narrow tailoring even further. At some point, of course, it becomes very difficult, narrow tailoring gets more and more narrow. When you think about the human and financial resources that are required to defend such programs, at some point, it becomes so difficult that institutions really have to be thinking about other types of alternatives. I think that frankly has been the goal of some of these challenges is just to make it incredibly difficult to justify and defend these programs.

So, I think the reality is colleges and universities have been taking holistic and systematic approaches since 2003. They're not just focusing on a single silver bullet or just relying on an admissions policy. They've been working on outreach and recruitment and pipeline programs and campus climate. So, all these pieces fit together in our planning. You can't just look at anyone in isolation. We've been experimenting with and doing research on different approaches in admissions, especially in some of the states that have already disallowed the consideration of race.

You've got changing demographics in our society on top of all of that, certainly since 2003 when you look at who's coming out of the K to 12 schools. So, for all these reasons, I think our institutions are actually more adaptable now. They've been through this drill before and they know how to prepare and we have better networks through our national organizations to share best practices really quickly.

Jeff Selingo:

So then let me ask you this, Jonathan, because one of the things I hear from the vast majority of institutions which tend to be less selective than Harvard or UNC in these cases is that because they just don't think the decisions are going to affect them as much. So, you're the president of institution that is less selective than UNC and Harvard. So, what do you say to that and what are some of the ways that, in your opinion, this decision could have a broad impact across higher ed? Again, I know that we don't know what the decision's going to say, but what do you say to those institutions when I talk to them, they're like, "Okay, well, that's something for the UNCs and the Harvards of the world to worry about"?

Jonathan Alger:

Yeah. I think there is some of that attitude that folks have as well. We're not Harvard. We're not UNC. This isn't about us, but a couple things here. First, we have to consider that there are implications beyond undergraduate admissions that graduate and professional programs that are offered at many institutions are smaller and often more selective and not all the same tools that work at the undergraduate level might work at the graduate or professional school level. So, that's one thing that we have to keep in mind because many schools of course have smaller graduate and professional programs that are selective.

Secondly, I do think we really have to be thinking about particularly financial aid and scholarships that could be impacted. Back when I worked in the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in the 1990s, we developed policy guidance on race conscious financial aid modeled after the Bakke decision and applied the same principles that you see in Bakke when you talk about diversity in its educational benefits and how you narrowly tailor a program. So, I really do think we've got to pay attention beyond just admissions, but to financial aid and possibly other types of outreach and recruitment programs if and when race might be considered as a factor.

One other hidden implication, Jeff, that I don't think has been widely discussed, when you look at Bakke in 1978 and then the Michigan cases in 2003, they were based on the importance of diversity to the educational mission. That mission was in turn premised on institutional autonomy and academic freedom to make these educational judgments. So, it'll be really interesting to see if the court addresses that point about institutional autonomy and to what extent courts should defer to academic judgments, because that has implications for all kinds of cases, even things like tenure and promotion policies, grading, et cetera. So, that is something I think a lot of people haven't thought a lot about, but that we really should watch in these decisions.

Michael Horn:

Frankly, listening to you run down that list, I think there's a lot of things that haven't been covered that much that are going to have some significant impact from wherever the court does go or chooses not to go in the next few months. I'm curious, as you reflect back to 2003 in that five-four majority opinion upholding the University of Michigan's consideration of race for admission to its law school, of course, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote a line that's been quoted quite a bit since then. She said, "We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest in student body diversity approved today."

Well, we're not quite 25 years from that opinion. We're within five years of it though. The line was referenced several times in the oral arguments. I'm just curious because it's hard to know how impactful something is at the moment versus how it's going to be viewed. When Justice O'Connor wrote that, did that line seem significant to you at the time in 2003 or has it become significant?

Jonathan Alger:

Yes. Well, certainly, it got our attention back in 2003. Now as a lawyer, I would say most of us at that time and still do consider that particular quote to be dicta rather than a binding precedent from the court. This was a comment that it was clear that Justice O'Connor was very concerned about ensuring that these race conscious programs not be permanent. She really wanted to underscore that narrow tailoring meant that they should be utilized only so long as absolutely necessary. So, we certainly understood that point. Having said that, she really pulled that 25 years idea from the period between Bakke in 1978 and the Michigan cases in 2003, which was roughly a generation.

We knew that line was not going to be forgotten that the opponents of these race conscious programs were going to circle 2028 on their calendars and bring it up again. We also knew there was a lot of work to do if you were going to get to that point where race conscious programs would no longer be needed. I actually took it to mean schools, you really got to work quickly and be very active with these efforts because you've only got a fairly short period of time here. Part of that dicta was also based on an assumption I think that our K to 12 schools would make substantial progress over that period of time in providing equal access. In many parts of the country, that progress I think has been slower than she might have anticipated at the time.

So, absolutely, it was something we were concerned about preparing for, but in the meantime, we had time to experiment with different methods and admissions policies and do further research on the educational value of diversity. So, I do think a lot has happened since 2003 that has positioned us better for the future.

Jeff Selingo:

So I'm curious, because I want to start talking a little bit about what's next. So, we talked about this 25-year period. So, now let's look at the 25-year period ahead of us because we've had several cases since Gratz and Grutter. Obviously, the Fisher cases and now these cases as well. Given the fervor about what it takes to get into a selective college these days, which I've written a lot about recently, I mean, do you expect cases like these will just go away even if the court rules against race conscious admissions? Is this the last moment of this, or do you think that this will just keep coming back in some way?

Jonathan Alger:

Yeah, that's a great question, Jeff. I think the short answer is no, I do expect that these types of challenges will continue. We've already seen a couple of challenges filed against medical schools in Texas anticipating the court's rulings here. If you think about it, schools that practice even race neutral alternatives might still be challenged about whether these approaches are in fact truly race neutral. So, there could be new lines of attack even after these cases. By the way, it's not just litigation in the courts that we have to be thinking about in higher education. It's also complaints with the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, an office for which I worked for a number of years back in the early 1990s and it's pretty easy to file those complaints.

You're already seeing that. Incidentally, right now, you're seeing challenges to gender-based programs as well. Now that's a different body of case law, of course. Title IX is a different statute, a different legal standard, but it represents that there are these broader challenges out there to forms of diversity and to actions and efforts to try to diversify student bodies and different types of programs. So, scholarships and summer camps and things like that are being challenged already.

But having said all of that, I also think that institutions are going to continue to find ways to work on their diversity and inclusion goals because it relates directly to their educational mission. There has been a lot of research that shows that diversity and excellence go hand in hand. So, I don't think the efforts are going to stop, nor do I think the challenges will stop. I think the broader political and social context in which we find ourselves suggest that you will continue to see these challenges to any sorts of programs to try to improve diversity.

Jeff Selingo:

So, thinking about those challenges to, if you will, alternatives right to race conscious admissions, I'm curious to get your take about which ones you might expect to gain ground in the years ahead, assuming that the court does strike this down, right? There's been the percent plans, like in Texas. There's been greater use of socioeconomic data in admissions. There are strategies like offering college courses from highly selective schools to high school students, similar to what the National Education Equity Lab does to find talent. Which ones do you think are going to be ascendant in the years to come? Are there ones that we haven't seen yet that will emerge perhaps?

Jonathan Alger:

Right. Well, my guess and this is just an educated guess based on where we are right now is the most prevalent alternative I think we're going to see in the short run at least is likely to focus on socioeconomic status or some version thereof, including programs that look at first generation students going to college or to professional and graduate schools. It's interesting. If you look at the different public opinion polls on this subject, there seems to be much more public support for approaches that address economic differences rather than racial differences. There was just a recent Reuters poll that said 62% of the American population opposes the use of race as a consideration in higher education admissions, but 58% support diversity goals.

So, that's an interesting point that people agree that the goal makes sense, that we need more diverse student bodies, but how you get there seems to matter to a lot of people. I do think that socioeconomic status is something that resonates with a lot of people when they think about disadvantages that people in our society face. So, it's not an exact match obviously for race. There may be some correlation, but there are clearly differences between those things. Geography, you mentioned the percent plans, for example, like you saw in a state like Texas.

It's certainly another approach, but of course, ironically, it relies upon and recognizes that there's continuing segregation in the public schools and it only works in states that have certain demographic patterns. It certainly works a lot less well for graduate and professional programs and any sorts of programs that draw nationally. I don't know how Harvard would have a geographic plan. What would they do, say we're going to admit every valedictorian in the country? They can't even do that, right? So, geography can only work in certain very limited circumstances.

I think we'll also see just more of an emphasis on other forms of life experience in a holistic review approach. That might be things like overcoming obstacles of various kinds, having work experience. The challenge with all of that, of course, is it takes a lot of human resources if you're talking about wading through all of that detailed information about applicants, especially with programs where there might be thousands upon thousands of people applying.

Jeff Selingo:

Of course, it just continues to open up institutions for complaints that are filed with the Department of Education or other lawsuits. Because again, if somebody gets in and somebody else doesn't, people are always going to be looking for a reason why.

Jonathan Alger:


Jeff Selingo:

Jon, as we try to wrap up here, there's been some pieces written about what's next to fall admissions after the use of race. The New York Times had this piece a couple of weeks ago about things like legacies, which obviously tend to favor White and wealthy applicants early admissions, which tend to favor the wealthy. I want to add another to the list, athletic preferences, which of course were a big one during the Varsity Blues scandal. Any thoughts on there on those? Is there anything else at risk if race conscious admissions goes down? You talked about things like gender and other things. Anything else that we should be on the lookout for?

Jonathan Alger:

I think in fact that's already happening, Jeff, to your question. I think criteria that are facially race neutral but that can have a disparate impact based on race are certainly going to be under much more scrutiny going forward. We're seeing that you mentioned legacy preferences. Standardized test scores, there's a huge debate right now about standardized test scores because of course they can correlate with family wealth. I think we're also going to see an even more careful reexamination of other criteria that in the past might have looked seemed fair and innocuous, like extracurricular activities, students that did unpaid internships or had wonderful international experiences. Well, those are all things that might not be available equally to students from all backgrounds.

So, I think there's going to be a lot of scrutiny about factors that might correlate with family wealth or those hidden advantages and social capital that families have. I also think we're going to see more of an emphasis on programs that seek to provide those types of opportunities for less advantaged students. So, perhaps starting at earlier ages so that students from different backgrounds can be prepared for the competitive environment of college admissions. This is a really important ongoing national conversation.

Michael Horn:

Jon, you have brought up so many points for us to chew on and things that have escaped I would argue the dominant media narratives. Just really appreciate you joining us in Future U and shedding this perspective.

Jonathan Alger:

It's been great to be with you today. Thank you so much.

Michael Horn:

Thank you and we'll be right back on Future U. This episode of Future U is sponsored by Ascendium Education Group, a nonprofit organization committed to helping learners from low income backgrounds reach their education and career goals. Ascendium believes that system level change and a student-centric approach are important for our nation's efforts to boost post-secondary education and workforce training opportunities. That's why their philanthropy aims to remove systemic barriers faced by these learners, specifically first generation students, incarcerated adults, veterans, students of color, adult learners, and rural community members. For more information, visit

Jeff Selingo:

This episode is being brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They are workers, parents, and caregivers, and neighbors. Colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student-centered at

Michael Horn:

Oh, welcome back to Future U. Jeff, as I said at the end of the interview, I think Jon brought up so many points that just haven't been talked about in the media that much. Most of the coverage has been around using race and admissions. Who gets discriminated against when you do it on the one hand and then the benefits of a racially diverse class on the other? But he brought up a lot of things that I mean naively perhaps just hadn't thought of and I'll call it the downstream impacts.

In other words, what the implications of this might be on how financial aid is awarded. How a school does outreach for admissions perhaps is a bit more obvious, but then there's this question of mission and institutional autonomy and maybe even how that starts to play into tenure and things of that nature. What's your take on these different factors, Jeff? Do you really think institutional mission could come under question here? I mean, there are many politicians who would love to blow up the tenure system, for example, in Florida and elsewhere, I suspect.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, the institutional autonomy is a really interesting point. I don't think either of us are Supreme Court experts, nor are we lawyers, but I know that lawyers are always scouring decisions for precedents that they can use elsewhere. I think in general right now, we're at a moment where the pendulum swings to be swinging against institutional autonomy on a lot of fronts. What's interesting to me after covering higher ed for more than 25 years is it's really a bipartisan effort, which is if I'm running a college or university, it's something I think I would be concerned about right now. We know public confidence is sinking in higher ed and there's a sense that colleges just can't be trusted to do anything. It starts with admissions.

Admissions is a black box that the only people who can see inside of it are the people who work in these offices and they don't really want to talk about it very publicly. That's, I think, where a lot of the skepticism about how race is used in admissions starts. It was interesting to me, Michael, in listening to the Supreme Court arguments in these cases, I was surprised at just how justices on both sides of the issue seem to really think that there was a separate admissions process for students of color, for example. That's not how races used in, at least how I saw it when I was reporting in the book, Who Gets In and Why, but I can understand why most people think that that's the way it's done because we don't explain it very well.

For example, that race along with a lot of other factors like legacy status tends to come into the process at the very end when you have way many more qualified applicants than you have space for in the university. So, where do you put the thumb on the scale? You might put the thumb on the scale for a Black student from X place or you might put a thumb on the scale for that legacy. That's really where it comes into to play. Now that, of course, this idea that admissions as a black box really extends to the crazy pricing and financial aid policies of colleges. Then it extends once you get on campus to how athletics works and free speech policies and even faculty research with foreign entities and corporations.

Of course, something that we talk a lot about are the outcomes and the poor outcomes that too many people have with higher ed. So, the bottom line here is that both Republicans and Democrats just simply don't trust colleges right now. I think one of the reasons why and something we're going to be talking about on this podcast, the education department wants to expand the third-party provider guidance of how colleges work with outside companies, again, is they don't trust them. They don't trust how colleges are working.

So, while I don't think this decision will be that broad to include this idea of institutional autonomy under question in this case, I do think that lawyers will be looking for ways that they can perhaps use any of the decisions in this case to start to clamp down on colleges on a number of fronts, to put controls on them given their unhappiness. That is with higher education on so many camps, whether we are talking about legacies, whether we're talking about athletics, because I really think that we're entering an era of more government control and oversight of higher ed, not less, no matter who is in charge in Congress, the White House, or the State House.

Michael Horn:

Gosh. Jeff, it's such a good set of points you're making about the lack of trust on both sides of the aisle and really all these policies, whether it's in Florida, whether it's at the federal level, really manifesting because of that lack of trust and a sense that government needs to step in some way, shape, or form, because we can't leave it to colleges. I think my quick thought on just the institutional autonomy question is that I think the court may be less likely to go there than Jon worries about just because it's somewhat easy to suggest that from a legal perspective anyway, your mission can't discriminate based on race, because look, that's part of US law and that's something we've worked on hard as a country to rectify.

So, as a result, when we talk about diversity, it can't just mean race. There's got to be something broader there. Now, as you've said, I could be wrong. I'm not a lawyer, and that's simply my gut reaction. I do think financial aid packages, recruiting, outreach, and so forth will be quite impacted by this ruling though, but I do think it raises the next question, Jeff, that you asked about, which is, what else will fall off next? Will it be legacies, athletics, geographic diversity? Those aren't protected questions from a discrimination perspective as is race though, but I think they could be legislated for public institutions, maybe private ones. It's harder, but it's going to be interesting.

I guess more broadly, what seems so hard about this conversation about mission and purpose and so forth is that in an effort for some commentators frankly to fall back on and say, "Well, it's about marriage. It should be about merit," Jeff." As Jon correctly pointed out, Harvard could just say, "We're going to fill a class of people who have 1600 SAT scores and all the valedictorians." They still couldn't do it because they're just too many of them. So, they'd have to either go to a lottery system, which you've proposed in the past.

I'll say I used to be super skeptical of that idea, but I've come to think it has more intrigue behind it or we just have to conclude what I think universities have concluded all along, which is that "merit" isn't as simple as a GPA or a test score. It's really about shaping the class at the end of the process, as you said. Look, a school shouldn't want to admit someone who they are not prepared to serve well, because that individual can't do the work say and the school just doesn't have the supports to help them do it well, but that's a far cry, I think, from shaping a class with a whole lot of people who theoretically can do just fine in the school.

Now, I know that there are, again, commentators out there who've made arguments about how affirmative action, let's send people to places like UC, Berkeley, who then have a significantly higher dropout rate. I'm not advocating for that. I'm just saying above a certain minimum level that indicates you can be served well by this school and we're not doing any false favors. This conversation around merit is just more than getting the higher scores or grade on some narrow measure at some level, and frankly, success in life is much more than that as well, Jeff.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, Michael, I know from researching Who Gets In and Why that how colleges define this idea of the worthiness of applicants tends to shift over time based on the institution's needs. At the most selective colleges where we know spaces are few and demand high, the definition of merit has changed substantially over the last half century, largely to preserve the social order or the interests of those in power, of course. What it takes to get into top colleges is evolving, once again, making it difficult for students and parents to keep up with these rules of the game. For one, schools are constantly tweaking their selection process based on data that they're collecting about why undergraduates ultimately succeed on campus.

Elite colleges, as we know, are also trying to recruit more lower income students to reverse the perception that their campuses have turned into these playgrounds for the wealthy. Selective schools are also trying to avoid legal landmines as they are right now around admissions policies that come under increased scrutiny for bias by federal officials in the courts. Those spur teenagers out there and their parents have come to realize that the supposed meritocracy of the system is just riddled with compromises and exceptions, but that term meritocracy, this word merit, was never meant to promote the supposed academic purity that we think it does.

Indeed, when the term meritocracy was coined by the British sociologist, Michael Young in 1958, he actually intended it pejoratively, right? His belief was that when the objective veneer of standardized testing and grades is stripped away, the advantages of centuries old class-based system, it just remains. But yet that term has been co-opted in the world of admissions, in my opinion, by the very people he was mocking, students and parents who believe that grades and test scores alone should determine who is accepted amid rising application numbers in following acceptance rates.

There's this great survey by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed Americans in 2019 and actually surveyed them again a couple of years later about all the admissions criteria that colleges should consider. What was interesting is grades and test scores topped that list. It was far above, athletic, ability, race, first generation or legacy status. But the reality as Jon pointed out of only using those two measures is simply impossible at places like Harvard and Yale and the Ivys or any of the other highly elite institutions. So, think about this, because Jon mentioned it, because these numbers came out in the Harvard case, that's before the Supreme Court now.

So, in the class of 2019 at Harvard, so this is now obviously a couple of years old because there data for this case is a couple of years old. There were 26,000 domestic applicants for admissions for that class of 2019. So, these were seniors in the high school class of 2015, 8,200 of them out of 26,000 had perfect GPAs in high school, 3,500 of them had perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 of them had perfect verbal scores, but Harvard only had 1,700 spots to offer that year. So, again, you had way many more "perfect students" than you had spots.

So, we tend to act as if grades and test scores are these objective measures like an applicant's height, but we rarely stop to talk about how every college uses a different rule and every test prep company sells them a step ladder through this. So, we have to stop to think about how your objective measures are different from my objective measures, because it depends on what your strengths are. Everybody thinks, "Well, we should be using test scores if you're a good test taker or we should be using GPA if I have a high GPA." I think no matter what happens in the Supreme Court, we're going to continue to struggle with what really merit means.

So, Michael, at the end of the day, the simple problem here is there's just not enough seats at these places. So, we're either going to have to stop thinking that everyone should go to the same colleges and universities or that we should stop talking about the same colleges or universities. We're going to have to increase the number of seats in these places. We've talked about that many times before, including with your old president Rick Levin, right? So that's likely not going to happen. So, I think we're just going to have to start to say there's more than just 10, 20, or 30 quality colleges and universities out there and start to widen our lens at here.

Michael Horn:

I want to come back to that point, Jeff, because I think it's a really important one because there's also another dynamic here at play, which is what Jon alluded to, which is that the public isn't all that excited about using race in admissions either, but they want diversity as he said in that poll. Although I think it's a fair question of how people define what is diversity. Diversity isn't just about race. It can be intellectual diversity, for example.

I think this is something we don't talk enough about, but I'm personally quite taken with the ideas of using socioeconomic status and first gen status as ways to level the playing field, if you will. But how has that perception in the public changed since 2003 when you covered the Michigan cases before the Supreme Court? Because I just don't recall what the societal consensus, if you will, was around these things back then.

Jeff Selingo:

Well, I think that there's been a movement away from affirmative action for quite some time now in public perception, but what's also interesting to me, Michael, I'm just going to take this question in slightly a different way, is how the perception is changing within colleges and universities within university leadership. I really came to this when I was working on that New York piece about MIT going back to the test, because if you look at the numbers at MIT, they mirror what's happening at a lot of other selective colleges. So, essentially what happened was that 20 years ago when MIT decided that they needed to diversify their classes more, they started to accept students with wider SAT scores. Meaning in their case, lower SAT scores.

In the case of MIT, it was not a 1600, but a 1450 or something like that. So, it's still a high score compared to a lot of people, but most of those scores, to be honest, were among students who were Hispanic and Black students were mostly the students that they accepted during that. Then what they saw was that their retention and graduation rates among those students dropped. So, what they did was tighten up their SAT scores again. Over the course of the next 10 or 15 years, their numbers of Asian students, their numbers of Hispanic students grew, but the number of Black students in particular stayed flat. While they increased the retention and graduation rates of all of those subgroups, again, what really happened in terms of enrollment was among Black students.

That to me is really the thing we're not talking enough about, because I know that people in higher ed are. Their biggest worry coming out of the Supreme Court case is mostly among Black students, particularly Black males. How do we continue to recruit, retain, and graduate Black students coming out of this case? That's something that we just don't talk about enough, I think, around affirmative action. We tend to talk about students of color and the impact of these cases on them, but not necessarily the subgroups that I think a lot of colleges and universities are most worried about.

Michael Horn:

It's a good set of points, Jeff, and I'll just react to it because I think those universities and colleges need to worry not just about who they're letting in, but are those populations then being successful, right? Because they're not doing anyone any favors by taking in students, having them accumulate debt, and then not graduate or be retained. I think colleges that are concerned about that question need to look really hard at the mirror and not just think about, "Gee, who are we letting in? That's the privilege," but how do we support them regardless of where they come in to be able to be successful here?

If they're serious about these questions of racial diversity, particularly for Black Americans, then I think it's something that they have to take far more seriously than particularly the selective institutions have today. That said, I will also add that I think there's one other bigger message in all this, which is we need, I think, as a country to become less obsessed with the most selective schools. There's this Gatecrashers Podcast that, as you know, I geeked out on, it talked a lot about how Jews were excluded historically from the Ivy League. They profiled all eight Ivy League schools in the history of Jews there. Back then in many of these institutions, they had up to a 10% quota. So, you had exactly 10% of Jews at all these colleges.

Then once you lifted that, the numbers soar. You had up to 25% at some schools. Now, what's interesting though is there's been no shift around how colleges view the Jewish population per se, but at some places, Gatecrashers was estimating that it's down to like 5%. So, even lower than the quotas. Before, his conclusion was Jews acted like an immigrant group. They were striving all obsessed with those top schools, and now they've assimilated and maybe less obsessed about just success on a very narrow metric. This is perhaps the story of Asian Americans now, the immigrant population, and maybe the story to your point of Hispanics in our country. We'll see where it goes, but they're certainly rising as a group.

Then you see this assimilation and realize that there are other ways perhaps to experience success that go beyond just climbing the ladder and getting the status of the name on your diploma. I think you and I both see how the conversation around the importance of college has changed in places like Lexington and Chevy Chase, where we both live. So, I guess my other hope out of this, besides the one I just mentioned on better serving students regardless of where they start, is that we as a society become a little less obsessed with those brand names and move from there, but we'll leave it there for now.

Really interesting episode. Huge thank you to Jon Alger, President of James Madison University for helping not only us revisit the past, but think about the big issues that maybe haven't gotten a lot of talk about how decisions from the Supreme Court will impact the future. So, a thank you to him and a thank you to all of you for listening. We'll see you next time.

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