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Choosing the Best Students

In sharply unequal societies, elite universities that receive government funds can properly be expected to play a role in fostering social mobility. But what does that obligation imply when these universities decide which applicants to admit?

PRINCETON – In different countries and for different reasons, university admissions policies are under attack. In a Boston courtroom on October 15, a judge will begin hearing a lawsuit claiming that Harvard’s admission process discriminates against Asian-Americans. In the United Kingdom, Member of Parliament David Lammy described Oxford and Cambridge as “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege” because of the many students they admit from private schools. In Japan, Tokyo Medical University has apologized for manipulating female applicants’ entrance exam scores in order to cap the proportion of women admitted at 30%.

Let’s look at each of these controversies in turn. It has long been apparent that the proportion of Asian-Americans admitted to America’s top private universities is significantly lower than that admitted by top public universities, where consideration of race is prohibited. In 2013, for example, Asian-American enrollment was 14-18% at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, and Columbia. At the two leading campuses of the University of California, Los Angeles and Berkeley, the range was 32-35%. Nor can the discrepancy be fully explained by California’s demographics, because at Stanford, California’s top private university, the Asian-American enrolment is, at 23%, still much lower than at California’s leading state institutions. (By contrast, of those enrolled at the private California Institute of Technology, 43% were Asian-American.)

Although Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and Columbia are private universities, each receives millions of dollars in public funds, which brings with it requirements that prohibit “unlawful” racial discrimination. Students for Fair Admissions, the organization suing Harvard, has submitted to the court a document showing that a review from Harvard’s own Office of Institutional Research found that in 2013 Asian-Americans were less likely to be admitted than whites who performed comparably well on all measures except a subjective “personal” rating. If admission had been based solely on academic performance, Harvard’s intake would have been 43% Asian-American. Instead, it was 19%.

In August, the US Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” in the case arguing that Harvard has failed to show that it does not unlawfully discriminate against Asian-Americans. That may be motivated by the Trump administration’s attack on affirmative action for African-American and Hispanic students, but it would be possible to admit more students from those disadvantaged minorities without making it harder for Asian-Americans to be admitted than it is for white Americans.

Oxford and Cambridge have long been criticized for admitting a disproportionate number of students from private schools like Westminster and Eton. Last year, Oxford admitted more students from 12 private schools than it did from all 841 state comprehensive schools. That is despite spending £13.6 million ($17.8 million) since 2009 on outreach to disadvantaged schools, an effort that led to 126 extra disadvantaged students being admitted, at a cost for the outreach alone of £108,000 per disadvantaged student.

In sharply unequal societies, elite universities receiving government funds can properly be expected to play a role in fostering social mobility. They can do that without compromising educational values by taking into account, in selecting students, the evidence that students from disadvantaged schools surpass their peers from better schools who were awarded the same scores in their pre-university exams. That means that the exam scores of students who go to the best schools should be discounted to whatever extent will achieve the most scholastically able intake.

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How best to measure scholastic ability in different contexts can be discovered by researching the academic progress of students admitted on the basis of competing methods of assessment, such as exam scores, IQ tests, interviews, and so on. To promote still greater social mobility by admitting students from disadvantaged schools who are not likely to do as well as other applicants would compromise the university’s educational standards, and it is not obvious that universities should go that far.

Tokyo Medical University’s manipulation of female applicants’ exam scores falls into a different category, because it is such a blatant form of deception. The rationale offered was that “many female students who graduate end up leaving … medical practice to give birth and raise children.” Despite some recognition of the need to reform practices in hospitals and other medical facilities to accommodate the needs of women doctors, so far little has changed. Only 20% of Japan’s doctors are women, a figure that puts it at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and well below the OECD average of 46%.

Surprisingly, however, many American colleges are also discriminating against women. Because they receive more applications from well-qualified women than they do from similarly qualified men, they admit less-qualified men to ensure “gender balance” on campus. Is gender balance so important that it justifies overriding the principle of allocating educational opportunities on the basis of merit?

The most obvious criterion for admission to a university is scholastic ability. Grounds for departing from that criterion, such as social mobility or the desire for a diverse student community, should be explicitly stated and defended, and then applied in a manner that is transparent and fair. Harvard will need to show that its personal rating of applicants passes this fairness test and is not a re-run of the de facto quotas that Ivy League universities began using in the 1920s to reduce the number of Jewish students they admitted.

Oxford and Cambridge, on the other hand, are on firm ground if they are selecting applicants with the highest scholastic ability by discounting the exam scores of students from private schools. And Japan needs an open discussion about how best to give women an equal opportunity not only to become doctors, but also to continue to practice medicine and thereby use their medical training to benefit those in need of health care.


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