Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

May the Best Man or Woman Win

Establishing Fair Criteria for College Admissions Tests Our Intelligence

By Miriam Schulman

An old teacher of mine used to claim he graded our papers by throwing them all up the stairs and giving A's to the ones that landed on the top step. Now, there was a case of someone treating every student equally.

Although this example is obvious reductio ad absurdum, it serves to demonstrate an important point: Equal is not necessarily fair. That principle is worth reiterating in any discussion of affirmative action in college admissions, which often boils down to a controversy over fairness. While people may argue that everyone should be treated exactly the same, the truth is that we all favor some sorts of criteria. The ethical trick is to make those criteria morally relevant.

If you think this is an easy matter, consider legacy admissions young people who get into a school because their parents are alums. According to a report from U.C.-Berkeley's Institute for the Study of Social Change issued in 1991, more legacy students were admitted to 10 of the country's most elite institutions than the combined number of all African Americans and Chicanos admitted under affirmative action programs.

Many people defend legacy admissions as acceptable because they help to ensure the financial continuity of the institution, without which no one would be able to enter the university. But such a rationale can be a slippery slope. Indeed, the hypocrisy tweakers had a field day recently when the Los Angeles Times reported that several of the U.C. regents who had voted to abolish affirmative action had themselves pulled strings to get relatives, friends, and the children of business associates into UCLA.

Morally Relevant Criteria
My point here is not so much to challenge the moral relevance of this particular preference, but to point out that race is only one among many possible attributes we might take into account in admission decisions. If, ultimately, we want to disallow it as a basis for preference, we should be prepared to justify why it is any less worthy than other characteristics we do consider.

One justifiable criterion might be ability: May the best man or woman win. While there may be general agreement on the relevance of this determinant, there is much less agreement on a fair way to measure it. On the surface, it might seem logical that the people with the best grades and scores should get the college slots. Indeed, this argument is at the heart of several cases, such as Bakke vs. Regents of the University of California, which have challenged affirmative action in the courts.

Although we might conclude that grades and scores are the most objective criteria we can come up with to assess ability, there are more than a few reasons to question our moral certainty about the justice of this system. First, standards of grading vary enormously from school to school; an A from one might be a C from another. Such variability was behind the creation of standardized tests like the SATs, which were supposed to provide a single measure for students across the country.

But these tests have been accused repeatedly of bias against minorities. In 1990, a national commission sponsored by the Ford Foundation found that the differences in test scores between minority and majority test takers were typically larger than the differences in their grades or job ratings. "We must stop pretending that any single standard test can illuminate equally well the talents and help promote the learning of people from dramatically different backgrounds," their report concluded.

Flutists and Football Players
While academic ability is hard to measure fairly, most people still want to include that factor in college admissions. But it is not, by far, the only characteristic that might be considered. A long-established criterion has been diversity. By this, I don't mean only the relatively new argument that student bodies should reflect the multiethnic society from which they are drawn; I mean the old practice of creating a freshman class that has a much-needed linebacker, a new first flute for the university orchestra, and a high-school senior-class president who may go on to a leadership position in college student government.

Athletic prowess, musical talent, and unusual community service have all been defended as morally acceptable considerations for college admissions because they add to the well-roundedness of the student body. If these attributes can be considered relevant to admissions, why not race?

Of course, there is nothing inherently edifying about attending school with people who have different physical attributes. Introducing more redheads into a student population would bring about no discernible benefit. But, in this country, having a different skin color means having a different life experience. Bringing that difference into the mix at our universities can greatly enhance the quality of the dialogue that goes on there.

On the larger stage, our society is enriched by the many different backgrounds and traditions of its members. For example, as a woman, I know I benefit from the increasing numbers of female health practitioners, who have brought women's health issues such as breast cancer to the fore-front of national consciousness. It does not surprise or even anger me that male doctors did not pursue these issues more forcefully — they lie outside menÕs personal experience — but I do want my experience to be represented.

Similarly, I have to confront the needs and perspectives of other members of my community, which I might ignore, however unwittingly, were they not represented in our universities and in the larger public discussion.