College Guide


November 28, 2012 4:20 PM Fake, and Real, Justice

By Daniel Luzer

A common theme in discussions about college admissions is a worry about the selectivity of elite colleges. More specifically, many critics are bothered by the fact that it appears that the bar for admissions to America’s fanciest institutions is much higher for Asian high school students than for other applicants.

This might well be unfair, but does this matter for America? In fact it might be utterly the wrong thing to worry about. Many argue that the inequity of elite college admissions is really important. As Ron Unz writes in a very long piece in the American Conservative:

Studies have documented a large gap between the average test scores of whites and Asians successfully admitted to elite universities. Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade and his colleagues have demonstrated that among undergraduates at highly selective schools such as the Ivy League, white students have mean scores 310 points higher on the 1600 SAT scale than their black classmates, but Asian students average 140 points above whites. The former gap is an automatic consequence of officially acknowledged affirmative action policies, while the latter appears somewhat mysterious.

But why do highly selective schools matter? Such a thing is problematic because, as Unz puts it, “elite colleges look neither like America nor like America’s highest-ability students.” More specifially :

The best single means of becoming such an economic winner is to gain admission to a top university, which provides an easy ticket to the wealth of Wall Street or similar venues, whose leading firms increasingly restrict their hiring to graduates of the Ivy League or a tiny handful of other top colleges. On the other side, finance remains the favored employment choice for Harvard, Yale or Princeton students after the diplomas are handed out.

If admission to elite colleges are unfair, so the thinking goes, changing that admissions process will make society more equitable. This, however, is ridiculous. Entrance into a tiny group that controls a disproportionate amount of wealth and political power can never be just.

The solution he proposes is something like a randomized admissions process for most applicants of elite colleges. Since such colleges have far more applicants than slots for students, why not just admit most students (after rejecting those truly incapable of succeeding) at random?

Let us ignore for a moment the fact that colleges will never agree to such a thing. Let us also ignore that where one goes to college might not really be all that important in terms of life outcomes. The real problem is that his concern is, from a public policy perspective, irrelevant. Who cares about the admission criteria for the upper class?

In truth it doesn’t really matter who goes to Yale or Dartmouth. Such people, to extend Unz’s (somewhat debatable) claim, get a chance to enter the American aristocracy. Good for them. But admission to the elite is necessarily unfair.

The important things here is how most people live and are educated. It’s true that a Yale degree might help a great deal with securing a good job at Goldman Sachs. But all we need to worry about from a policy perspective is what you need to be a bank branch manager in suburban Atlanta.

Admission to the upper class is, for all societies and throughout all time, unfair and based on some combination of talent, luck, and favoritism.

Real affirmative action pertains to admission into federal jobs and public universities, the avoidance of systemic discrimination. Discrimination, however, is the essence of the operation of the upper class; it’s not supposed to be fair. No one “deserves” to be in the ruling class. The composition of that miniscule social class doesn’t have anything to do with merit or justice.

It’s a tiny group of powerful people. It’s not supposed to be representative of society. The notion of meritocracy allows people to gain the skills and jobs for which they are qualified based on their own merit. People often mistake this for the composition of social class but it does not, and never has, pertained to the method of determining who gets to be the super-elite.

The real social justice problem is much more structural than the admissions department at Princeton could ever address. Unz hints at this but declines to follow the problem to its more appropriate conclusion. He writes:

We have witnessed a huge national decline in well-paid middle class jobs in the manufacturing sector and other sources of employment for those lacking college degrees, with median American wages having been stagnant or declining for the last forty years. Meanwhile, there has been an astonishing concentration of wealth at the top, with America’s richest 1 percent now possessing nearly as much net wealth as the bottom 95 percent.

And, the argument seems to go, since admittance to that one percent has something to do with a fancy college, we should change the selection for fancy colleges.

Well no. The trouble is this gross maladjustment of American wealth, not the racial or intellectual composition of the country’s richest people.

The goal, for instance, of the people involved in the Occupy Movement (we are the 99 percent) is not to enter the 1 percent; it’s to fix the country’s taxation policies, financial structure, and safety net so as to improve the material lives of the 99 percent. That’s all that matters.

Or, to put it simply, it’s very important what Goldman Sachs does; it’s not at all important who works there.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Zack on November 28, 2012 5:17 PM:

    So, a Columbia graduate who made his way first into a highly coveted internship and from there into the liberal punditocracy is telling me that who gets into the Ivy League isn't really a big deal? Okay....

  • Daniel on November 28, 2012 5:37 PM:

    Not from a social justice perspective.

  • M. Hampton on November 29, 2012 1:35 AM:

    But it does matter who gets into the 1%. Whether its the truly talented and hard-working or simply the offspring of the current 1% makes a BIG difference to a society.

  • ceilidth on November 29, 2012 10:22 AM:

    I get the point and agree that overall it matters more who gets the education that allows them into the middle and upper middle classes than who goes to Harvard. It may not matter that much who goes to work for Goldman Sachs, but it matters a great deal who gets a fast track into the highest levels of government. Compare Romney and Obama. Both are smart guys, but only one of them had ever spent any time outside the bubble of the very wealthy. Romney was absolutely clueless about life below the 1%. As long as we continue to think that Ivy League degrees are necessary for the highest offices, we need to make sure that they are open to people from a wide range of backgrounds. That doesn't mean lowering standards; the number of qualified people who are rejected from these schools is staggering. Or maybe we could try something really different and that is building more top notch universities and universities just below the top tier.

  • DF on November 29, 2012 11:12 AM:

    This post and line of reasoning completely ignore the effects of power on society. The people entering the 1% exercise a great deal of power over society. They have a disproportionate amount of money and influence that allows them to dictate the course of the nation.

    There are two problems with allowing this to remain a racial and/or class privilege. First, a meritocratic objection: the people running our society are not necessarily the people most qualified to do so. This has obvious problematic ramifications for the administration of the country.

    Secondly, a social justice objection: if the people who effectively control our society are allowed to maintain their racial or class-based privilege by locking out other groups, how is this any different from a caste system? And if other groups are prevented from earning, through their own merit, the "keys to the castle," as it were, why should they not seek to destroy the castle? If a tiny minority is in power, and is allowed to guard that power and deny it to others, why shouldn't those others violently resist that minority?

  • Daniel on November 29, 2012 12:19 PM:

    @DF, the problem is the power of the 1%, not its composition. Changing the composition of that 1% (especially to random selection) would fix nothing.

    You write: "If a tiny minority is in power, and is allowed to guard that power and deny it to others, why shouldn't those others violently resist that minority?"

    Right, but, all tiny minorities in positions of great power have an incentive to try to guard that power and deny it to others. The great power is the problem, not who's in the tiny minority.

  • David Martin on November 29, 2012 12:43 PM:

    Elite colleges have always used athletics, "geographical diversity," alumni preferences, and other means to discriminate against students who merely have excellent grades and test scores. I'm sure that by now, there's private schools that work diligently to turn students from Asian backgrounds into prime athletic recruits.