Who Should Get into College?

By Prof. John McWhorter, UC Berkeley

City Journal, November 30, 1999

For many years now, elite colleges—taking their cue from the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision—have justified racial preferences in admissions by saying that they are necessary to ensure campus “diversity.” Get rid of preferences, “diversity” fans say, and top colleges will become minority-free enclaves; the spirit of segregation will be on the march again. The losers won’t just be the folks with the brown pigmentation, now exiled from the good schools, but all those white students who now will never get to know the unique perspective of people of color.

Nonsense on all counts. Correctly understood, diversity encompasses the marvelous varieties of human excellence and vision in a modern civilization—from musical genius to civic commitment to big-brained science wizardry. People who recognize the folly of racial preferences are no more opposed to diversity in this sense than critics of “gangsta” rap are opposed to music. What they do reject is the condescending notion that a diverse campus demands lower admissions standards for brown students, and that, in 2003 America, brown students need crutches to make it.

With the Supreme Court about to decide a case that could overturn Bakke and require colorblind admissions, once and for all, it’s a good time to describe what a post-affirmative-action admissions policy at a top school should look like—and explain why it would be fully compatible with minority success and real diversity.

The raison d’être of the nation’s selective universities, at least from the standpoint of the public interest, is to forge a well-educated, national elite. Thus, our post-preferences approach to admissions must be meritocratic. But few people would want schools simply to choose students with the very best SAT scores and grades, and call it a day. The image of elite campuses populated solely by 1,600-SAT-scoring Ken Lays or Sam Waksalls, of whatever color, is unappealing.

Back in the early 1980s, at Simon’s Rock Early College in Massachusetts, a smattering of my classmates fell into the 1,600 category. But thankfully, the school’s administrators grasped that that kind of achievement represents only one of the forms of excellence that smart young people can bring to campus life. The school worked hard to attract a lively mix of students, who vastly enriched my years on campus. My cello playing, for example, took on new depth, because I had the opportunity to play with a brilliant musician whose talents on piano and violin scaled near-professional heights. A roommate was a splendid stage performer, and marinating (unwillingly at first) in his favorite music and historical anecdotes opened up a universe of vintage American popular music and theater that has been part of my life ever since.

At school, I also met my first Mennonite and my first white Southerner—there is no better way to get past a native sense of an accent as “funny,” I discovered, than living with someone who speaks with one. There were other blacks among the school’s 300 or so students, too. Most, like me, were middle-class kids, but there was one guy who had grown up in crumbling Camden, New Jersey. This student gave a lesson in one form of cultural “blackness” to his white classmates—he had real “street” cred. But far more important, after a rocky start and some coaching, he also proved he could do the schoolwork on the high level the school demanded.

This was real diversity—the full panoply of human variation, not just the tiny, superficial sliver of it represented by skin pigmentation. And Simon’s Rock fostered it without surrendering academic standards.

Since my undergraduate days, however, elite universities have come to mean something much different when they speak of “diversity”: having as many brown faces on campus as possible, regardless of standards. The origin of the current notion of “diversity,” Peter Wood shows in his masterful Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, was Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion for the court in Bakke. Though strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, Powell argued, schools could still use race as an “important element” in admissions in order to create a “diverse” campus that would enhance the quality of all students’ educational experiences by exposing them to minority “opinions.”

Powell’s argument was, in Wood’s terms, a “self-contradictory mess.” How, after all, does one make race an “important” factor in admissions while avoiding quotas? It was also dishonest, in that it wasn’t at bottom about broadening white students’ horizons but providing a rationale for admitting blacks and Hispanics much less qualified than other applicants. The decision has encouraged the Orwellian mindset by which the University of Michigan Law School can defend its admissions process, 234 times more likely to admit black applicants than similarly credentialed whites, as an expression of “diversity,” not the obvious quota system it really is.

Even on its own terms, Powell’s “diversity” argument is demeaning and offensive to minorities. What would be a black “opinion” on French irregular verbs? Or systolic pressure? The “black” views that most interest diversity advocates, of course, are those that illumine social injustice. But in my experience, white and Asian students are at least as likely to voice such PC opinions—often picked up in multiculturalism workshops when they first hit campus.

Diversity supporters sometimes reverse themselves 180 degrees and say that race preferences are necessary to show white students that there’s no such thing as a “black” viewpoint. “By seeing firsthand that all black or Hispanic students in their classes do not act or think alike,” argues Jonathan Alger, counsel for the American Association of University Professors, “white students can overcome learned prejudices.” One can only hope that a warm corner of hell awaits anyone who would subject a race to lowered standards for a reason so callow.

Black students understandably can find this whole diversity regime repugnant and even racist. “Professor McWhorter,” students have asked me, “what about when I am called on for my opinion as a black person in class? Is it fair that I have to deal with that burden?” A continent away, the undergraduate-written Black Guide to Life at Harvard insists: “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.” Indeed, students in general are skeptical of the value of “diversity”: a recent survey by Stanley Rothman and Seymour Martin Lipset of 4,000 students at 140 campuses shows that the more that racial “diversity” is emphasized on a campus, the less enthusiastic students are about the quality of education a school offers. What’s more, Rothman and Lipset found that such “diversity”-focused schools had more reports of discrimination, not less.

The dismal failure of the “diversity” experiment of the last two decades offers an important lesson for a post-affirmative-action admissions policy. Even as we seek diversity in the worthy, Simon’s Rock sense, we must recognize that students need to be able to excel at college-level studies. Nobody wins, after all, when a young man or woman of whatever color, unprepared for the academic rigors of a top university, flunks out, or a school dumbs down its curriculum to improve graduation rates. The problem, then, is to find some way to measure a student’s potential that still leaves administrators enough leeway to ensure that campus life benefits from a rich variety of excellences and life experiences.

As it turns out, we have—and use—the measure: the Scholastic Aptitude Test. James Conant invented the SAT as a meritocratic tool to smoke out talented individuals from the wide range of life circumstances in American society, not just the WASP elite who made up the vast majority of Ivy League student bodies in the pre-SAT era. Nowadays, a creeping fashion dismisses the SAT as culturally biased, claiming that it assesses only a narrow range of ability and is irrelevant to predicting students’ future performance. But while it is true that the SAT is far from perfect—if it were, students wouldn’t be able to boost their scores by taking SAT preparatory classes—the exam really does tend to forecast students’ future success, as even William Bowen and Derek Bok admit in their valentine to racial preferences, The Shape of the River. In their sample of three classes from 1951 to 1989 at 28 selective universities, Bowen and Bok show that SAT scores correlated neatly with students’ eventual class ranks.

For gauging student potential in the humanities, the verbal SAT, or SATV, seems particularly useful. Rutgers University English professor William Dowling compared the grades of kids in one of his classes over the years with how they did on the verbal test. “What I found,” Dowling notes, “was that the SATV scores had an extraordinarily high correlation with final grades, and that neither, in the many cases where I had come to know my students’ personal backgrounds, seemed to correlate very well with socio-economic status.” The reason, Dowling thinks, is painfully obvious: having a strong command of English vocabulary, usually gained through a lifelong habit of reading, is hardly irrelevant to how one engages advanced reading material. As Dowling argues, a student of any socioeconomic background who can’t answer correctly a relatively hard SAT question like this one—“The traditional process of producing an oil painting requires so many steps that it seems______to artists who prefer to work quickly: (A) provocative (B) consummate (C) interminable (D) facile (E) prolific”—will be fated to frustration at a selective university, at least in the humanities.

My own experience reinforces Dowling’s. I’ve taught students who, though intelligent, possessed limited reading vocabularies and struggled with the verbal portion of the SAT. I have never known a single one of these students to reach the top ranks in one of my classes. “I think I understand what Locke is saying,” one student told me in frustration while preparing for a big exam. But Locke isn’t Heidegger—his prose, while sophisticated, is clear as crystal. This student confessed that he was “no reader” and possessed only a “tiny vocabulary.” Without the vocabulary, he was at sea. Conversely, my textaholic students are usually the stars, gifted at internalizing material and interpreting it in fresh ways—and this is especially true of students immersed in high literature.

A post-preferences admissions policy, then, must accept that below a certain cut-off point in SAT scores, a student runs a serious risk of failing to graduate. As Thomas Sowell, among others, has shown, placing minorities in schools that expect a performance level beyond what they have been prepared to meet leads to disproportionate dropout rates—41 percent of the black students in Berkeley’s class of 1988, to take one typical example, did not complete their education, compared with 16 percent of whites. Many of these students may have flourished at slightly less competitive schools. Moreover, when minority students attend schools beyond their level, note Stephen Cole and Elinor Barber in Increasing Faculty Diversity, poor grades often deter them from pursuing graduate degrees, contributing to the dearth of black Ph.D.s. Black and minority students overwhelmed on a too-demanding campus can succumb, too, to the bluster of seeing themselves as “survivors” in a racist country—becoming part of an embittered minority rather than proud members of a national elite. To prevent this kind of damage, the SAT can supply us with the rough parameters within which our admissions search for different kinds of merit—diversity, rightly understood—will proceed. All this makes the recent efforts by the affirmative-action claque to get rid of the SAT misguided in the extreme.

Within our SAT range, and once in a while even a bit outside it, there will be plenty of room for judgment calls. Grades, extracurricular activities, and character will all be key. An applicant with a high GPA and a 1,480 SAT who plays the trumpet like Clifford Brown or who gives every indication of being a unique and charismatic individual may deserve admission over an applicant with a 1,600 SAT but no real interests and the individuality of a spoon. Our top universities seek to create a national elite, so geographical diversity will be important too: our admissions policy will seek a mix of students from all parts of the nation. As long as there is no coterie of students whose grades and test scores would have excluded them from consideration if they were white (or Asian), basic standards of excellence prevail.

And certainly, our admissions procedure won’t immediately disqualify a student who is clearly bright and engaged, but whose test scores happen to fall slightly below the official cut-off, or whose GPA took a hit from one bad year, or who matured into a super student only late in his high school career. Fervent recommendation letters, attesting to leadership or virtue or strength of character, a flabbergastingly good writing sample, a demonstrated commitment to a calling—all will be significant in deciding whether to admit students whose grades and test scores put them on the borderline or slightly below.

Our admissions policy will be colorblind, but it won’t ignore the working class and the poor (many of whom, as a practical matter, will be blacks or Hispanics). Of course, it’s more likely that affluent children, growing up in print-rich homes, will score within our SAT parameters and have the tippy-top grades. But there have always been kids from hardscrabble backgrounds who show academic promise—by nature, by chance, or thanks to the special efforts of parents or other adults. Abraham Lincoln teaching himself to write on the back of a shovel, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer growing up dust poor in the Mississippi Delta loving books—American history records many examples. Disadvantaged students of this stamp will sometimes get the nod in our admissions procedure over well-off applicants whose scores might be more impressive—provided that the disadvantaged kids’ SAT scores are within our range (or close to it). That disadvantaged students have shown academic promise may be just a result of good genes, but it’s often a sign of good character—a virtue that selective universities should recognize and cultivate.

The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, is already on the right track here. Not so long ago, the admissions committee I sat on matter-of-factly chose middle-class brown students, essentially “white” culturally, over equally deserving white students. I felt tremendous discomfort over the practice. Since California voted in a 1997 referendum, led by anti-preferences activist Ward Connerly, to ban the use of race in admissions, things have changed. Berkeley still assesses students on grades and scores, of course, but instead of race, it now considers the “hardships” that young men and women may have overcome while excelling at school. We recently gave fellowships, for example, to two needy white students who had shown sterling promise. I felt fundamentally right about these fellowships. “This is a racially blind process,” emphasizes Calvin Moore, chair of Berkeley’s faculty committee on admissions.

The idea of a “racially blind process” makes today’s “diversity” fans shudder, since they believe that it will lead to a tragic re-segregation of the best American universities and thus of American society. I’m sorry, but this is manipulative melodrama. In an America several decades past the Civil Rights Act, where far more black families are middle class than are poor, many black students will be ready for the top schools without dragging down the bar of evaluation.

For proof, consider the University of Washington. In 1998, the year before Washington State outlawed racial preferences in a citizen referendum (also led by Connerly), the school counted 124 African-American students in its freshman class. Two years after the ban, there were 119. Before Texas banned preferences in its schools in 1996, the University of Texas enrolled 266 black freshmen. After the ban and the debut of a new system that admits the top 10 percent of every high school in the state regardless of race, the number actually bounced, to 286. (The “top 10 percent” approach has serious problems, including treating huge discrepancies in school quality as if they did not exist, but it’s better than what it replaced.) If this is re-segregation, bring it on.

The kind of colorblind admissions process I have outlined would likely just reshuffle the minority presence at selective schools, not reduce it. In Virginia, where racial preferences remain entrenched, black students currently make up 7.9 percent of the student body at the highly competitive University of Virginia Law School, 9.3 percent at the slightly less selective William and Mary Law School, and just 1.7 percent at the less elite, but still fine, George Mason Law School. George Mason’s “diversity” deficit results from black students getting in to the more selective schools at a higher percentage than their dossiers would suggest in the absence of affirmative action. Bar preferences, and the number of black students at George Mason would rise; the overall number of blacks getting legal training in the three schools would probably remain the same.

What would be so bad about that? It’s doubtful that the black students at George Mason’s yearly commencement ceremony, feting their accomplishments as their parents beam beside them, worry that they will soon be on the street, selling pencils. In fact, nothing better underscores the progress made by black Americans than the prevalence in the affirmative-action camp of the bizarre notion that admission to a solid second-tier university somehow represents a tragic injustice.

Exactly this type of resorting took place after the end of preferences in California’s schools. The state’s flagship universities, Berkeley and UCLA, did see an initial plunge in the number of black freshmen. But minority presence rose at the same time at most state campuses. And minority admissions at the two top schools have gone up every year following the initial drop-off. Having watched this whole process play out at Berkeley, I can confidently say that the black student community is far from a lonely remnant of what it was in the “good old days” of affirmative action. Berkeley still boasts a thriving black community—the same African-American student groups, the same black dorm floors, the same African-American studies and ethnic studies departments.

Moreover, the minority presence at the flagships may have taken a bigger initial hit than the ban required. Immediately after the ban, black activists at the two schools lustily proclaimed their campuses “anti-black,” doubtless discouraging some black students from applying—minority applications dropped off sharply for a spell. At UC Berkeley in 1998, the minority admissions office staff actually told some black students, already accepted to the “racist” school, to enroll elsewhere. One of the motivations for writing my book Losing the Race was hearing a black student working in admissions casually say that she distrusted black applicants who did well enough in high school not to need preferences, since such students would not be committed to Berkeley’s black community—as if it were somehow not “authentically black” to be a top student. No show lasts forever, however, and after the crowd crying “racism” had its fun and went home, minority applications have steadily climbed.

Most important of all, California’s black students have started to do better now that they are going to schools that their academic background has prepared them to attend. As University of California at San Diego law professor Gail Heriot notes, before the preferences ban, 15 percent of the college’s black freshmen undergraduates, compared with just 4 percent of whites, had GPAs below 2.0, which put them in academic jeopardy; only one black student had a GPA of 3.5 or better, compared with 20 percent of whites. The next year, after the outlawing of campus affirmative action, 20 percent of black freshmen reached the 3.5 or higher GPA level (compared with 22 percent of their white classmates), while black frosh with GPAs below 2.0 fell to 6 percent (about the same as all other racial groups). High freshmen dropout rates fell precipitously.

It’s true that, with or without racial preferences, blacks will not make up as high a proportion of the student population at our better schools as they do of the overall population. But to worry unduly about this is ahistorical bean counting. Given the relatively short time since the nation rejected segregation, and the internal cultural factors that can hobble a group and keep it from seizing opportunities, it should surprise no one that our selective college campuses do not yet “look like America.” But give it time. That’s not a rhetorical statement, either: since the banning of racial preferences in California, there has been a 350 percent rise in the number of black teens taking calculus in preparation for college. Challenge people, and they respond.

Informed observers believe that the Supreme Court, in agreeing to decide two suits brought against the University of Michigan for reverse discrimination in its admissions, may be set to abolish all use of race in admissions, and move the nation toward the colorblind ideal that motivated the original civil rights movement. Especially in light of the stereotypes that blacks have labored under in this country, saddling black people with eternally lowered standards is immoral. We spent too much time suffering under the hideously unjust social experiments of slavery and segregation to be subjected to further social engineering that benefits the sentiments of liberal elites instead of bettering the conditions and spirits of minorities. Unfortunately, even some conservatives remain uncomfortable with this colorblind possibility: the Bush administration’s amicus brief in the case, though it views the Michigan admissions policy as an unconstitutional quota system, still contemplates school officials “taking race into account.”

It’s time to step up to the plate. My years on college campuses have taught me that even those willing to acknowledge the injustices of preferences in private uphold the “diversity” party line in public—something Bakke allows them to do. “John, I get where you’re coming from,” a genial professor once told me, “but I reserve my right to be guilty.” Indeed, 25 years of Bakke show that, in practice, even a hint that race can be “a” factor in admissions will give college administrators, ever eager to Do the Right Thing, the go-ahead to continue fostering a second-tier class-within-a-class of “spunky” minorities on their campuses.

Justice Powell’s Bakke opinion cited an amicus brief for “diversity” submitted by Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. The brief described how these schools had traditionally aimed to compose their classes with a mixture of “students from California, New York and Massachusetts; city dwellers and farm boys; violinists, painters and football players; biologists, historians and classicists; potential stockbrokers, academics and politicians.” It’s a wonderful, noble goal, this diversity—and we don’t need to treat any group of citizens as lesser beings to accomplish it.