Justin Li


Meritocracy vs. Diversity

2009-04-22

I recently finished Daniel Golden's book Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges. The main thesis of his book is that colleges, instead of admitting people based purely on how strong they are academically, are instead giving an advantage to those with "hooks": athletes, children of big donors, alumni, faculty, or celebrities (in both popular culture and politics). The ideal admission policy is a meritrocracy - if you can demonstrate that you are good at school, then you get in.

At the same time, Golden is also a proponent of diversity on college campuses. That is, the student body of colleges should have the same distributions of race and social status as the nation at large.

Here's an uncomfortable truth: meritocracy and diversity, in the current social state of the nation, cannot coexist perfectly.

What do we mean by merit? The problem is that the demonstration of merit often times requires opportunities, which unlike intelligence is not distributed evenly across the population. Let's say someone has a lot of potential at computer programming, but happened to be born into a household that could not afford computers. There is minimal computer training in schools, and so this person never develops this potential, despite being better at it than a lot of other people. Should this person be admitted to a top computer science program? In theory, yes, although of course the admissions officers see nothing to indicate this person's competence in the field, and therefore in practice, no.

Here's another uncomfortable truth: there are objective truths to steorotypes.

Due to the unequal opportunities given to people of different races and social statuses, it is true that white Americans have a much higher graduation rate from high school than black Americans. Ideally, social policies would eliminate this difference, but so far it has failed to do so completely (though I'm sure it has made big steps in that direction). Because of this measurable statistic, it is scientifically valid to have a priori assumptions about someone's education level depending on their race/background.

This about it this way. If I tell you that in a bag of marbles, 67.4% are striped. In another bag, 44.7% are striped. If you draw a marble from the first bag and had to guess whether it was striped, you would probably say yes. Draw from the second bag, however, and you'd probably say no.

67.4% is the percentage of Asians 25 and over with some college experience; 44.7% is the percentage for Blacks (source). Just because the objects are now people, and the attributes are now education level, doesn't change the way these probabilities are analyzed.

Back to diversity. If Golden's idea of diversity is to be realized, then colleges should take, say, the top 15% of its applicants of each race. Factor in socioeconomic diversity, and it will be the top 15% of each race-status group. This process is a rough equivalent of giving "admission points" to applicants who come from challenging backgrounds; there's an assumption here that people of the same economic status has the same (or lack the same) opportunities. Of course, it's possible to do this on an individual level, but whether there are resources available to evaluate each applicant that carefully is questionable.

In either case, it is clear that this group is not equal to the top 15% of the entire pool of applicants. Any kind of standard of merit can be used; as long as race and socioeconomic status influences the opportunities a student gets (and I fear it always will), meritocracy and diversity are not mutually compatible.

The question is, which one do we value more? Politically, of course, we want to say that our colleges give the same chances to everyone, that we are race and wealth blind; educationally, colleges want the brightest students, so when they graduate they will add to the list of alumni with high accomplishments. What societal factors are making colleges choose the first over the second?

I am personally in favor of a pure meritocracy, racial and economic diversity be damned. But then again, I am Asian, I come from a well-off family, and I consider myself (pretty) above average.

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