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Sensational storylines aside, both the lawsuit brought against Harvard last fall and the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal that swept universities this spring captured the public’s attention in part because they challenged the notion that college admission, at its core, is based on merit.
I applaud the Federal judge’s decision that race may be used as a factor in holistic admission. But the ruling in Harvard’s favor underscores the importance of holistic practices in a meritocratic system without addressing the real weakness in the system: The rising cost of higher education has increased the bias in the college admissions process toward wealthy families.
There is regular debate on the role race plays in college admissions; yet at many institutions, the thumb on the scale is not race but wealth — and not in the form of bribes but in simply being able to pay tuition. The decision in the Harvard case (which likely will head to the Supreme Court) preserves a set of considerations that helps colleges shape the classes that they feel foster the optimal educational environment on their campuses.
In practice, though, for most highly selective private schools — more specifically, the overwhelming majority of schools that are not need-blind, as Harvard is — this ruling will have little impact on who is offered admission. The outdated notion that race is a decisive element in an admissions process stands in sharp contrast to our modern reality of need-aware admissions.
Only a few dozen private institutions are need-blind; that is, they have the financial resources, generally in the form of large endowments, to admit students without regard to their ability to pay. Many schools with relatively small endowments, including my institution, Kenyon College, depend almost exclusively on tuition dollars to operate, making revenue considerations a significant factor in the admissions process. As Paul Tough powerfully explains in his new book “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,” the business model our institutions are built on often must be sustained at the expense of meritocratic ideals.
Even need-blind institutions such as Harvard have significant overrepresentation of wealthy students. Much has been said about the intrinsic advantages conveyed to those with the means to enroll in summer enrichment programs, hire private counselors, take test preparation courses — not to mention the benefits that come from a supportive network of parents and family members to help guide applicants through a byzantine and complex process.
Kenyon College is not immune to these dynamics, and while we are committed to addressing them, we also face the harsh realities of tuition-dependence and the need to generate revenue. A robust learning environment must be a learning environment that reflects the views and experiences of a diversity of backgrounds; yet our institutions are built on a business model that must prioritize financial survival over pure talent.
If we really want to examine how to create more equitable admissions practices across higher education, we must broaden our view beyond scrutiny of admissions at Harvard.
Reducing the inequities of the admissions system throughout higher education will not occur overnight — it will take a commitment from both individual institutions and a broad coalition from across the sector to reimagine the business model of higher education and direct resources toward access and opportunity for students with intellectual potential but not wealth. Important work on this is already underway: The American Talent Initiative (ATI), an alliance of more than 100 institutions with high graduation rates, is working together to educate 50,000 additional high-achieving lower-income students by 2025. ATI’s work is fortified by the diversity of its membership, which includes not just small liberal arts colleges like Kenyon but also research institutions, public land-grant universities, schools in the University of California system and members of the Ivy League. This type of effort is an important start.
The intensity and persistence of coverage of the Harvard case, and of “Operation Varsity Blues,” signals more than a sensational story: It points to a declining public confidence in higher education. In our current climate, colleges are often dismissed as being too expensive, irrelevant and out of touch — so much that the Justice Department has called on us to reconsider our professional standards.
The Harvard case and its outcome should not be heralded as a great victory for equity and access but acknowledged for what it is: an opportunity to crack open the conversation about higher education’s role in increasing upward economic mobility, and to win back the public’s confidence in the institution.
Until we acknowledge how the current system reifies and amplifies economic inequality, and take steps to improve it, it won’t be just side-door scandals and headline-dominating court cases that deserve the public’s outcry.
Sean Decatur is president of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.