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First Person

Harvard Law’s Lani Guinier on the problem with college admissions

Too often, argues the professor in her new book, tests and other practices cater only to the elite.

The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

The “testocracy” is the term that I use to describe the overemphasis by many institutions of higher education on the applicant’s ability to do well on an SAT or an LSAT or some other test that is presumed to predict performance in college. What these tests really tell you about is the financial stability of your family.

The focus of higher education has become extremely competitive as opposed to courageously collaborative. The testocracy doesn’t take into account the important roles that higher education plays or attempts to play in a democracy. Those roles are a form of teaching leadership, of teaching scholarship, and producing citizens who are going to contribute not just to their own family but to the larger society.


Professors who have transformed their pedagogy to engage students more directly with each other and create partnerships and collaborations, those students are more effective at solving problems and also create a very valuable set of skills in terms of learning how to work with others, as opposed to competing against those others to show you’re more clever than they are.

I graduated from a very large public high school in Queens, New York. And there was a teacher, Mr. Black, who had a course after school to help people prepare for the SATs. He empowered us to think we had skills. It wasn’t just rote — it was helping us to understand the questions and challenges that faced us in the test. But he also empowered us to critique the test. So the day after I took the test, before I knew what my SAT scores were, I drafted a letter to the SAT board complaining about a particular question that I thought was not articulated clearly.

[My SAT score?] To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. [Laughter.]

READ MORE Guinier’s book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America is out January 13. She will appear at 7 p.m. on February 9 at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store. 617-661-1515;


Interview has been edited and condensed.