President Donald Trump wants college admissions to be colorblind — a statement that merits a discussion of, well, merit.
The administration announced Tuesday it will walk back an Obama-era policy encouraging colleges to consider race as one among many factors for admission. The "race-blind" approach will likely prefer more objective criteria — test scores, for instance — to determine who makes it to their college of choice.
Let's put aside the thorny elements of affirmative action for the moment. Navigating the 1978 Supreme Court decision banning race quotas but allowing deference to race in some instances is as confusing as it is explosive.
The conversation I want to have centers on the meaning of merit — the quality of being worthy — and whether it's time for that definition to change.
Consider two recent incidences where the definition of merit hasn't measure up to some people's expectations.
The first occurred in early June when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed changing the admissions process for a handful of the city's elite public high schools. What makes them elite? The sole criterion for entrance is a high score on the Specialized High Schools Admission Test, a devilish exam requiring copious preparations. Only those who put in the work to test well get admitted.
De Blasio is upset that Asian-Americans are overrepresented in these schools. Indeed, at Stuyvesant High School, Asian-Americans make up 73 percent of the student body.
The mayor wants more black and Latino representation, so he's willing to scrap the test in favor of a system that, among other options, picks top ranking students from a swath of high-poverty middle schools.
Isn't a single test score the ultimate definition of merit? No matter economic circumstances, one has the same opportunity to prepare as anyone else. One Asian-American describes how his son spent every weekend and every summer vacation studying for admittance to Stuyvesant. Doesn't everyone have that chance?
Critics argue years of underprivileged youth makes for an uneven starting line. Some runners might not even be starting on the same track. Therefore, deserving applicants need a helping hand in order for them to reach their full potential.
Chew on that while we explore the second incident.
Harvard is now the subject of a lawsuit claiming it has systematically suppressed, you guessed it, Asian-American applicants. According to the Economist, "Asian-Americans rank higher than white applicants in both their academic prowess and the quality of their extracurricular activities. Yet their admission rates are much lower."
Harvard, like most American universities, defines merit not by a handful of test scores, but by the holistic character of the applicant. That allows them to quietly massage the numbers to better fit their preferences, whatever those may be. It also allows, in Harvard's case, a full one-fifth of white applicants to waltz in because their relatives attended the school.
The school has shot back with its own arsenal of statistics proving no racial bias. But as the Economist magazine explains, the competing numbers aren't based on bad bookkeeping, they merely represent disparate conclusions about the meaning of fairness — in other words, the meaning of merit.
Will a return to colorblind admissions change how we view merit? Yes. But what merit ought to mean may still elude us.
Reflecting on a different institution that employs blind admissions is useful. Since the '70s and '80s, symphony orchestras have used blind auditions to add members to their ranks. The performer sits on one side of a sheet without divulging any identifiers, and the jury sits on the other side. Judgement rests on nothing but pure music.
This system has proven to lower gender bias in hiring practices (surprise, a woman can play the clarinet just as well as a man). Would a race-blind admissions process work just as well to sort out the most deserving students?
For an orchestra, incentives to hire the best are clear. Better talent makes better music which draws a bigger audience and makes better recordings.
Schools, on the other hand, are preparatory labs for future lives and careers. Is a school's function to attract the best based on where someone's been, or to build the best based on someone's potential? The answer to that is no doubt somewhere in the ambiguous middle, which is why we can't agree on the best admissions practices.
For now, the American meritocracy will be defined only by what we think is worthy of promotion. Do we want persistent, logical and studious students, the future of America's workforce? Or do we value diversity and the tolerance and respect it fosters? How about both? Now there's an idea with some merit.