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THE CHOSEN

Why university will never be a meritocracy

Harvard building
Donations build a lot more more than merit.
This article is more than 2 years old.

Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article and book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.

I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:

Race. And money. But really, race.

Here’s a more subtle answer:

College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.

Roughly, it goes something like this.

First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools.

Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things.

Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era.

Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.”

Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school.

College admission has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.

If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:

  1. A huge increase in Asian enrollments;
  2. a modest decrease in white enrollments, but with strong Jewish  enrollments;
  3. a substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments;
  4. an increase in people who don’t give back;
  5. a very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.

Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are white minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?

I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.

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