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It has been said that “It depends” is the answer to every question about college admission. It depends on the college or university in question, it depends on the student, and it depends on the specific circumstances.

Is “It depends” also the answer for how the American public feels about consideration of race or ethnicity in college admission? Does it depend on whom you ask, when you ask and how you ask? The results of two recent polls suggest that might be the case.

More than 60 percent of Americans favor affirmative action programs for minorities, according to a Gallup poll released back in February. That includes, for the first time, a majority of white respondents (57 percent) favoring affirmative action.

Those results seem at odds with a Pew Research Center survey released a couple of weeks ago. That poll, conducted between Jan. 22 and Feb. 5, is the first national survey conducted in the wake of arguments in the recent court case involving Harvard University's treatment of Asian American applicants. Federal judge Allison Burroughs has yet to render a verdict in that much-followed case.

The Pew survey showed that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that colleges shouldn’t take race into account in making admissions decisions. So how do we reconcile the two polls? What we have here would seem to be a case of national cognitive dissonance when it comes to college admission and race.

Or maybe not. We know that how a survey question is composed can influence the survey results. A survey designed by antiabortion advocates will ask about protection of unborn life, while a pro-choice survey will frame its questions to focus on a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.

The Gallup poll, conducted from mid-November to mid-December of 2018, asked “Do you generally favor or opposes affirmative action programs for racial minorities?” The Pew Research Center survey asked respondents whether seven different factors (race/ethnicity, gender, legacy status, athletic talent, community service, test scores, high school grades) should be a major factor, minor factor or not a factor in college admissions.

The results of the Pew survey are misleading, because all it asks is whether the various factors should be major, minor or nonfactors. In selective admission the real issue is how various factors are weighted. A holistic reading process isn’t admitting students based on a single factor, and in any case most applicants have grades and scores strong enough to establish them as qualified. The real issue is how and how much nonacademic factors like race or legacy status are valued.

Some of the most interesting data in the survey are easy to overlook. Not surprisingly, high school grades and standardized test scores receive the highest responses, but 7 percent of survey respondents believe that high school grades shouldn’t be a factor in admission. That result would seem odd even in a survey composed only of executives at the College Board, the Educational Testing Service and ACT. If grades shouldn’t matter for the 7 percent, what should?

While a majority of poll respondents believe that race or ethnicity should be a nonfactor in admission, there are interesting differences among groups. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe that race should be a major or minor admission factor. Ironically, given the recent Harvard trial, the group that most supports race being a major or minor admissions factor is Asians, at 41 percent. Eighteen percent of black respondents believe that race should be a major factor, while only 4 percent of whites do.

That raises the larger question of whether many of the traditional measures of “merit” may not be neutral or objective but rather measure privilege. When you benefit from the rules of a game, there is no imperative to change the rules, and the rules probably seem fair.

But is there a larger trend here? Back in 2016, shortly after the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. Texas, Gallup and Inside Higher Ed collaborated on a poll examining public attitudes toward the decision. Several of the questions in that poll were identical to those in the Pew survey, asking whether different factors should be major, minor or non-.

The support for every single factor as a major admissions factor has declined in the current poll. In 2016, 73 percent said grades should be a major factor; today it’s 67 percent. The support for test scores declined from 55 percent to 47 percent. Support for all of the noncognitive factors declined as well, including first-gen status (31 percent to 20 percent), athletic ability (15 percent to 8 percent), legacy status (11 percent to 8 percent), race (9 percent to 7 percent) and gender (8 percent to 5 percent).

So what is that telling us? Is the decline in support for major factors a reflection that the public understands the complexities and nuances of selective admission, or is the public opposed to preferences of any kind?

An Inside Higher Ed article last week about the new Pew Research Center survey quoted Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. She defended the consideration of race as a factor in admission by equating it to colleges taking into account “a tuba player from Montana.”

That mythical tuba player from Montana may offer insight into the seemingly mixed messages being sent by the public about the use of race in admissions. Should the tuba player get preference because of his or her musical talent and geographical diversity? Is the talent for playing the tuba relevant to the admission process? Is that the case even if the college or university doesn’t have a band or orchestra?

Assuming the band needs a tuba player, does the fact that the tuba player grew up in Montana provide a claim to a place in the freshman class over a more talented tuba player from New York or California? If so, is that because there is a difference in the Big Sky school of tuba playing, because learning to play the tuba while growing up in Montana implies overcoming adversity or because the university doesn’t have other students from Montana?

Those questions have nothing to do with race (or tuba playing) per se, but they may help explain the dissonance in the Gallup and Pew polls. Does the discrepancy in attitudes in the two surveys reflect the fact that the public doesn’t understand how selective admission works?

Or is the explanation that the public understands all too well how selective admission works? There is broad support for racial and ethnic diversity in higher education (except when it negatively impacts them) but deep suspicion about the means used to achieve a goal that is worthy.

Or is the answer “It depends”?

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