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The white-columned facade of the U.S. Supreme Court

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The June 29 Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action may not have been good news for Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It did, however, provide a wake-up call to higher education leaders that they could not afford to rely primarily on the examples set by a small circle of academically prestigious colleges and universities. In other words, selective admissions was on trial.

Now that Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill have had their day in court, two things stand out. First, their approaches to achieving diversity in their student bodies obviously need retooling because they are out of compliance with the law. Second is that the Supreme Court decision raises doubt about the historic soundness of the competition that has characterized selective admissions policies. They may bring prestige to some institutions, but they are not a sound model for most institutions to emulate if we wish to fulfill national goals of equity and affordability. We need to consider college access and diversity for large groups of colleges and students who have been left out of media coverage and the high-profile court cases.

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Since Harvard was one of the defendants in the Supreme Court case, it is important to reconstruct historically how Harvard’s approach to admissions has sent many colleges on a fool’s errand in trying to recruit and then enroll a diverse student constituency that achieves both excellence and equity.

One early clue that Harvard’s practices and goals were out of reach for most colleges can be found in its 1963 admissions view book, with the statement “Wealth like age cannot make a university great. But it helps.” This was convenient for Harvard to invoke since it was, after all, both the oldest and wealthiest college in the nation. Who could disagree with this? Who could match this?

Little wonder that Harvard had an edge in recruiting a talented and diverse student body. But institutional greatness was incidental to achieving national goals, and Harvard’s model provided an inappropriate—and unrealistic—blueprint for most other colleges outside the Ivy League to follow. For a college without Harvard’s benefits of heritage and endowment, the challenge instead was to develop a distinctive educational mission. Why be preoccupied with pursuing the “brightest and the best”? What is wrong with a college aiming to provide a good education to good students?

Unfortunately, it was hard for college presidents and admissions officers to avoid being reminded about the attractiveness of the Harvard model. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in the 1978 Bakke case praised what he called “the Harvard Plan” for admissions. The court cited Harvard’s holistic admissions program as an “illuminating example” because it used race as one of several factors in a selective admissions process instead of setting quotas for minority students.

“The Harvard Plan” was especially unrealistic for most colleges to follow because Powell’s timing was terrible. By 1978 the number of high school graduates had started to drop. Furthermore, the number and rate of college applications tapered. Double-digit inflation left most colleges financially strapped. Even Yale ran an annual deficit of over $1 million. Many college campuses resembled the estates of impoverished nobility who tried to keep up appearances while deferring maintenance on leaking roofs and eliminating staff positions.

Colleges had difficulty meeting the dual demands of enrolling an academically strong freshman class while providing ample financial aid to meet student need. The 1986 edition of Richard Moll’s engaging book Playing the Private College Admissions Game (Penguin) included the sobering note that “not more than forty private colleges enjoy the luxury of admitting one out of two of their candidates, and not more than a half-dozen private colleges admit one out of five applicants.”

This small group of institutions has attracted outsize attention as they set off to build and cement their prestige. Economist Charles Clotfelter’s research showed that around 1985, about 35 prestigious private colleges and universities had acquired sufficient endowment wealth that they could afford to pursue a strategy of “buying the best,” whether it meant attracting outstanding researchers, students, scientists and athletes, or building state-of-the-art laboratories and stadiums (Princeton University Press, 1996).

The result was that by 1990 Ivy League universities along with Stanford and a handful of other universities had the luxury of choice. The “little Ivies” provided the informal connotation that brought some small liberal arts colleges into the club. It then extended to fold in some flagship state universities. In 1985, Richard Moll wrote about the emergence of the “public Ivys”—flagship state universities such as the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michigan at Ann Arbor, Texas at Austin and the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles. Each year a few more state universities were designated as aspiring members for that elite group.

An artifact of admissions ambition has been our national preoccupation with the ratings and rankings of colleges and universities as suggested by the annual compilations by such publications as U.S. News & World Report. We hunger for numbers even though no one is sure of their validity or significance in what they purport to measure about a college’s quality.

Ironically the popularity of college rankings coexists with some counter trends. Enrollments are dropping. Degree completion takes longer. Student debt soars. For all the attention to selective admissions, very few institutions are choosy in picking their classes. A report commissioned by the Pew Research Center found that just 17 four-year institutions admitted fewer than 10 percent of students in 2017, and another 29 admitted between 10 and 20 percent of students. The Pew report concluded that “a majority of U.S. colleges admit most students who apply.” This was based on data gathered before the COVID-19 pandemic, after which enrollments and applications have declined at many colleges.

The United States has more than 2,000 four-year colleges—many of which are at increased risk of cutbacks and even closure. At the same time we have underrepresentation of first-generation students and students of color at these colleges. What we need is the equivalent of the eHarmony matching service. Selective admissions and climbing in the rankings are not the route.

As sociologists Richard Arum of the University of California, Irvine, and Mitchell L. Stevens of Stanford University recently argued in The New York Times, “affirmative action didn’t go far enough,” suggesting that “more should be done to help students at non-elite colleges.” No doubt Arum and Stevens are correct. However, it is simply not possible for the vast majority of colleges (i.e., the nonelites, or those lacking multibillion-dollar endowments) to, for example, match Harvard’s practice of eliminating loans from the financial aid packages it offers to students. This is but another example of why following Harvard’s model is not possible for most colleges.

John R. Thelin is University Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Kentucky. Richard W. Trollinger is vice president of college relations emeritus at Centre College. They are co-authors of Philanthropy and American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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