The Case for Admissions Selectivity

Let’s remind colleges what they’re supposed to care about.

[Editor’s note: This article commences a two-part series on admissions selectivity at colleges and universities. To read Frederick M. Hess’s “The Case Against Admissions Selectivity,” click here.]

For how many years have elite colleges been playing a double game of inclusivity/selectivity? Some years back, Yale President Peter Salovey had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal affirming the high regard the school placed on inclusion and the opening of Yale to voices of all responsible kinds. A variant of the beloved word appeared seven times in the short discussion. None of it was true, of course; too much inclusion means a loss of prestige. For all the egalitarian talk on campus, the happy photos of smiling diverse faces in marketing materials, and the pledges of sensitivity and tolerance, Yale and every other Tier-One institution want their selectivity rates to hit the single digits, the lower the better. Talk the talk of inclusion, walk the walk of hyper-competition: a few winners and lots of losers.

As an individual matter, this is the way of the liberal high-achiever. Work hard, rise to the top, success, success … but display a little guilt for your superiority, do a little “giving back” to the poor souls who couldn’t keep up, and broadcast your awareness of the inequities that favored you and disfavored them. It doesn’t matter that your professions are mostly symbolic. You vote Democrat, read the Times, buy organics, and loathe Trump. You are a good person. And your ascent in a super-selective system doesn’t undermine your social sympathies—it reinforces them, for this is what smart people believe. Liberalism is the intelligent person’s politics.

In spite of “reforms,” selectivity still happens, as it always will when a school receives 30,000 applications. And they’re right, in a way. It takes a great deal of mental twisting for a white or Asian liberal to espouse Affirmative Action and demand more diversity at Top-10 U while never even considering having her own child give up admission to that sacred space. Such bad faith is a way of keeping selectivity around. The rationale is fraying, though. Wokeness won’t let it pass, and administrators are proving their obedience to the new faith. The mechanisms of selectivity are dropping: SAT/ACT scores increasingly optional, GREs and LSATs no longer required, Harvard Medical School ending its U.S. News & World Report participation, DEI programs expanding, diversity statements added to job and grad-school applications, the new president of Harvard entering with no authored book on her CV …

This is the institutional version of the double-dealing liberal individual. Yet, in spite of these “reforms,” selectivity still happens, as it always will when a school receives 30,000 applications and admits a class of only 1,200. The removal of hurdles such as standardized tests does something else, creating a different selectivity, one using putatively more “just” discriminations such as the personal essay in undergraduate applications. This is the strategy: the maintenance of prestige coincident with the elimination of injustice and exclusion. Elite schools want a filtering process that doesn’t look so elitist, so income-based, and so racially-biased. (The sexism accusation lost its bite years ago when female admissions beat male admissions—the undergrad proportion today is 58 to 42 percent.) Using criteria more personal and holistic than a test score, admissions officers can make decisions that don’t make rejected applicants feel that they never had a chance against the lucky few, who, in former times, got ahead through test-prep courses, private tutors, and white skin. Universities still want a big applicant pool and a relatively small entering class but with concrete evidence of non-traditional, historically-underrepresented identities on the day of matriculation, so that Woke bitterness dissipates. That makes the liberal professional secure, comforted, and virtuous, all at once.

The goal is appealingly simple, as is the evidence of its achievement. Wokeness doesn’t care about excellence. Messy matters such as quality-control and eventual consequences (such as those revealed by “mismatch” data) don’t enter into consideration. Wokeness condemns the old way of selectivity as unjust, and it insists on a blunt correction. The equity it demands explodes the achievement race with a plain manipulation of demographic numbers, no debate needed, no rationale offered. The reform is complete.

And yet, the old justification for selectivity remains. That justification has nothing to do with politics, race, gender, or privilege, which may be why Wokeness ignores it. Woke talk of justice and fairness hasn’t addressed it, as far as I know. Instead, Wokesters have voiced a spurious adaptation of the old justification, one that vindicates its social engineering, we are told. The adaptation goes like this: A diverse classroom awakens young minds to the insights of difference. Perspectives widen, thoughtfulness spreads, cosmopolitan attitudes form. Students of one identity come to “know the Other,” to see through others’ eyes, and no modes of “otherness” are more profound than race and sex/sexuality. More diversity evokes higher learning, the argument goes. A white kid from the Main Line cannot comprehend the world of the black kid from West Philadelphia, no matter how carefully he has read W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro. Put him beside the latter in U.S. History 101, however, and he will realize just how parochial his upper-middle-class white/Asian socialization really is, and that’s an invaluable learning outcome.

The old justification for selectivity has nothing to do with politics, race, gender, or privilege.But who really believes this? Who hasn’t concluded, after a few experiences in which people are interpreted according to their identities and ordered to recognize their differences, that such tactics only aggravate tensions and sensitivities? When the New York Times publishes a commentary with the title “What If Diversity Training Programs Are Doing More Harm than Good?,” we know the whole project is collapsing. People who attend such sessions sense their coerciveness straight off and don’t like it. That goes for 19-year-olds in diversity orientations, as well. They don’t trust the organizers and presenters. Individuals who savor those situations are out for power, not illumination. They live on ressentiment, not understanding. Think about it. What kind of personality likes to enter a room of 25 people, take charge, and think to herself, “Lots of y’all have some bad ideas about human beings in your heads, and my job is to root them out”?

The old selectivity likewise presumed the learning impact of students on one another, but of a different kind. It said that if you place smart, hardworking kids in a room together, each will push and inspire and frighten the others to work harder and learn more. Peer pressure will raise the intellectual bar. If more than half the kids on a dorm floor study three hours a night, the rest shall take note, understanding that, for youths with ambition, the campus is a competitive habitat. There are only so many spaces in business and medical schools. A smart sophomore surrounded by lesser talents, on the other hand, doesn’t study so diligently. She’s confident, eventually complacent, and she doesn’t become what she ought to have become by the time of graduation.

This effect of selectivity isn’t obsolete, nor is it unjust. It just is. And with youth culture becoming ever more screen-oriented and anti-intellectual, the value of having deep-thinking and book-reading peers grows with every roll-out of the next iPhone. Because the discriminations of college admission will go on, let’s shift the criteria away from justice and identity and toward these factors:

  • “How many hours of leisure reading do you tally each week?”
  • “What book has influenced you most in the last three years?”
  • “What are the highest intellectual virtues?”
  • “What are the habits you would like your college roommate to have?”

Also, what are your high-school grades and standardized test scores? Despite modish ideas, that kind of selectivity will never stop mattering.

Mark Bauerlein is Emeritus Professor of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things magazine. His most recent book is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults