Who Deserves to Get Ahead?

Commentary on affirmative action in education.

The best slots in higher education, like the best of anything, are a limited resource in high demand. Admission to a good (or even undeservedly prestigious) high school, college, or graduate school can have life-long ramifications, since diplomas from such institutions give graduates a competitive edge for jobs, leadership positions, high salaries, and economic success and security. So many apply but few are chosen. On what basis should schools decide who gets to get ahead?

To answer this question we have to understand the sometimes conflicting interests of the parties to the debate on affirmative action, then adjudicate them according to some principled criteria. Motivated students are obviously one such party, who desire the best opportunities to develop their talents and the best (real or perceived) credentials for the next step in their careers. Parents, with a nearly inexhaustible supply of concern for their children’s happiness and success, are another. And schools themselves have a direct interest in who they admit, since their graduates’ achievements will reflect on the school’s reputation, and thus the school’s ability to attract continuing support. All these are more or less selfish interests that compete for personal and institutional advancement.

But there are more abstract, collective interests at stake as well that complicate the picture. For instance, the opportunity for a good education should not be wasted on someone who is unable or unwilling to take advantage of it. Arguably, we all benefit when utilization of education is maximized, since this builds talents and capacities that may well increase social welfare across the board. Similarly, we all have an interest in increasing the access of historically marginalized ethnic, racial, and economic groups to the best schools, since this is one route to reducing social inequality, the source of the most virulent internal threats to our country’s continued peace and security.

The educational experience itself, when it includes the diversity of such groups, can undermine racial and class-based stereotypes while preparing students for life in the real world. Less irrational prejudice among tomorrow’s leadership elite is certainly to everyone’s benefit.

The big question, then, is how to balance selfish and collective interests in educational access when deciding admissions policies. The selfish interests tend to get adjudicated on the basis of what’s traditionally called merit, the individual’s sum of talents, motivation, and originality. In this starkly competitive system, the smarter, more talented, more hard-working, and more original students are thought simply to deserve the best slots. But what’s the basis for such desert? After all, as political philosopher John Rawls pointed out, individuals are simply lucky to have been born with more than the average allotment of genetically determined intelligence and drive, and equally lucky to be born of parents or in sub-cultures that inculcate the values of study, hard work, and originality. [Rawls reference here]

Moreover, giving these lucky students, usually from white, Asian, middle and upper class backgrounds, the best educational opportunities is bound to amplify the gulf between the talented haves and the less talented have-nots. It’s to endorse what might be called nature’s cruelest law, expressed succinctly in Billy Holiday’s song “God Bless the Child”: “those that’s got shall get, those that’s not shall lose.” Given the already huge class and race-based disparities in the distribution of education, health, jobs, and life expectancy, why should we continue to play the game of winner take all when it’s gotten so obviously out of hand? For an object lesson on the instability flowing from gross social inequality, simply consider the barricaded enclaves of the super rich in Brazil, who need 24 hour protection by armed security forces.

Such considerations might undercut the widespread commitment to individual merit as the sole factor in school admissions, and lead us to favor policies which aim to reduce inequality by giving a leg up to those not quite as “deserving,” in the traditional sense, of the best shot at success in life. Concretely, this means assigning somewhat greater weight to an individual’s race, ethnicity, social class, and other factors which are historically linked to getting the short end of the social and economic stick, instead of deciding on individual merit alone.

This group-based compensatory approach to admissions must in turn be balanced by the reality that as reward-driven individuals, students are spurred to achievement by hopes of attending a first-class university. If the word gets out that no matter how hard you work, no matter how creative you are, someone considerably less talented is likely to get “your” spot simply by virtue of their background, then indeed we’ll lose an important engine of human capital development. For this reason, and because educational opportunities should be maximized to further develop such capital, schools are still amply justified in setting a high talent threshold. Nevertheless, it’s still the case that over this threshold, a “deserving” background may tip the scales in favor of individuals with somewhat less sheer talent and ambition.

The interests of individuals and society are perhaps not fully compatible, in that no one wants to have their optimum life hopes thwarted for the greater good. But neither is it likely that a stable, just society can be built solely on the unconstrained exploitation of personal advantages. Support for admissions policies that transcend individual merit will grow once we admit that the qualities of students are not bootstrapped out of thin air, but are a matter of biological and social contingency. And once it is made clear that greater social equality, and therefore greater social security, benefits all citizens, then giving disadvantaged individuals more chances to get ahead will be accepted to be in everybody’s interest.

TWC, November 2004

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