You may have read or heard recently that more than 60 organizations have combined to file a complaint with the federal government against Harvard University, alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants. And this is not the first time the issue has been raised, of course; late last year a suit was filed in federal court alleging the same thing of Harvard and several other institutions. The federal suit, however, appears to be a circuitous route to end what the plaintiffs call, “affirmative action,” all together, which was the point of several prior lawsuits going back to the 1970’s (putting aside the fact that Affirmative Action, a specific legal term used to designate programs designed to address past incidents of illegal racial bias, is different than using race as a factor in admissions.)
Interestingly enough, just this morning, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments about the constitutionality of using race at all in admissions, subsequent to its early decision to send Fisher v. Texas back to the 5th Circuit Court. Thus, at the same time Harvard is being accused of ignoring test scores to deny applicants, The University of Texas (like the University of Michigan before it) is being accused of ignoring test scores to admit applicants. Beautifully ironic, isn’t it?
The arguments are similar, it seems, and boil down to one thing: The standardized test scores (usually the SAT) of applicants. Two groups are thus attacking the admissions process from different sides, and with different agendas, held together with a common linchpin: The belief that, “I was more qualified because my test scores were higher.”
See this chart, which shows the relationship between ethnicity and test scores (orange is higher). However, the chart also shows a strong relationship between test scores and income, which may hurt the case of some of the well funded conservative think tanks behind many of the lawsuits in recent memory (the data are pretty close approximations based on extracts from the ACT EIS Program). Click the image for a larger view.
Do you see an easy out here? I do. Colleges who eliminate the requirement of a standardized test eliminate one of the plaintiff’s main arguments. Of course, then the problem becomes distinguishing between and among the very high achieving students who have perfect GPAs and lots of impressive accomplishments. That’s clearly another problem all together, but it can make the case for holistic admissions as it’s currently done even stronger. And it’s likely to open the flood gates of applications from excellent students who never thought their scores were good enough. The question becomes whether you want to keep your old problems or deal with newer, exciting ones.
No one would ever expect the super-selective institutions to eliminate standardized tests on their own, despite lots of research that suggests the extent to which they help a university make better decisions is negligible. The simple fact is that these institutions have too much to lose by doing so, and the risk is too large for any one of them to do it alone. But the federal government telling them they can’t do admissions the way they’ve always done it, which could set off a series of decisions all at once, just might do the trick.
What do you think?