The college admissions process to our nation’s highly selective colleges aspires to be meritocratic. Admissions officers at these institutions endeavor to admit intellectually curious students from all corners of our diverse world. Admissions officers aspire to admit students of all different ethnicities — including African American, Latinx, Native American, Asian American, and Caucasian students. They aspire to admit students of all different faiths. They aspire to admit students who identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, non-binary. They aspire to admit students from across the socioeconomic spectrum. They aspire to admit students with great grades and scores. They aspire to admit students who are going to change the world in super specific ways. They aspire to admit athletes who will help their athletic teams, science researchers who will make the next great discoveries, and writers who will pen the next great work of fiction that will capture imaginations around the world.
The College Admissions Process is Under Fire in Every Direction
That sounds like a whole lot to do, right? Admissions officers at our nation’s elite colleges have to create all sorts of balances so they don’t admit too many recruited baseball players or too few Native American students in an incoming class. Of course, it’s a process, one shaped by Affirmative Action, that has been under fire for many years — first by the right and now by the right, the left, the middle, above, below, and diagonally. As Ross Douthat opines in a wonderful piece in The New York Times entitled “The College Admissions Trilemma,” “Lately the critiques have come from all directions. Asian-Americans have noticed that the current racial balance on campuses is sustained, in part, by suppressing Asian numbers. Populists of the left and right have pointed out that meritocracy often has racial diversity without socioeconomic diversity, reproducing a multi-hued but still immensely privileged elite. And the new progressivism has attacked that racial diversity as insufficient, because it still leaves blacks and Hispanics alienated within a system dominated by rich white kids.”
There is No Perfect Solution to Fixing the College Admissions Process
So what can be done about this dilemma, you ask? Well, we’ve proposed many imperfect changes over the years on the pages of our college admissions blog and in the press — from decreasing the size of the legacy pool to development cases only so these admits can continue to subsidize the educations of low-income students to eliminating slots in admissions for some sports that generate little revenue for the schools. Mr. Douthat, in his well-argued editorial, suggests some other imperfect fixes to the system before closing his piece with this gem: “Another, grimmer answer is that the modern meritocracy has too many flaws and contradictions to either allow dramatic reform or to command widespread support without it. Which means that a system lacking legitimacy and under siege from all directions may be with us for many matriculations yet to come.” Yes, oh yes it may.