I was raised from an early age to be skeptical of how admission to elite schools works. My father, a black man who had been accepted to Harvard College in 1929, was told on arrival that he was not eligible for scholarship aid because he had not submitted a photograph with his application. He was also not allowed to live in the dormitories. This, he later discovered, was a ruse to discourage his matriculation. Harvard’s official policy was one in which “men of white and colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together nor shall any man be excluded by reason of his color.” But Harvard’s unofficial policy was to admit one black student per class — a policy it had inadvertently exceeded by accepting my father’s photograph-less application.
Harvard University no longer excludes people because of their color; nor does it reject students who come from poor or working class families. But, like other elite universities, Harvard’s official policy still remains far removed from how it unofficially admits students. Rather than photographs, the Harvards of today ask for standardized test scores. They do this even though it is well known that the tests do not predict how well students will do in college — much less what they might achieve afterwards. Instead, the SAT and ACT correlate so strongly with family income that they serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status.
Like the old-boy networks of the 1920s, predictive test scores thus provide a potent advantage to the children of privileged families who have the means to pay for preparation and few passions outside of replicating the status quo. Legacy admissions policies then usually further supplement the dominant skewed test preference. This constitutes the real affirmative action. A 2004 study found that at the top 146 colleges, 74 percent of students come from the wealthiest socioeconomic quartile of American families, with a paltry 3 percent of students coming from the lowest socioeconomic status quartile.
This is the larger problem in our national testocracy, where the ruling influence and power of standardized tests confer status and ultimately replicate the status quo. Schools are so concerned with admitting the “best” students that they fail to consider what they actually teach or what their alumni go on to do. Those of us who believe in the democratizing power of diversity have begun to push back against the forces described above. As University of Michigan professor Scott Page recommends, if institutions of higher education want to graduate problem solvers, they should look for a diversity of perspectives. It hurts our country when, year after year, elite schools graduate a group of students whose collective claim to fame is their teenage achievement on a single non-predictive test.
In 1995, Page, who had a budding interest in how groups perform, constructed a model that demonstrated that “diverse” groups outperform groups of “high performers.” First, he gave his students a test. Based on the results, he formed two groups: one for the students who answered the most questions correctly and the other for students who individually did worse but who, as a group, contained students who answered every question. Page found that the second group was better at solving further problems because their various perspectives complemented each other. Even though everyone in the first group could answer many questions on their own, only the second group had students who could answer the questions the first group got wrong.
Democracy in a multiracial society requires vigilance and an ongoing commitment at the university level to do two things: educate a diverse group of future leaders and focus more on collaborative forms of problem solving, a format that encourages diverse views and builds on the different life experiences (both historical and contemporary) of men and women, people of color and the children of immigrants, people whose parents went to college and people who will be the first in their families. It is through a collaborative rather than competitive approach to problem solving that the democratic mission of higher education will survive. And it is the democratic mission of higher education — not its concern with finding the “best” photographs or applicants on paper — that underwrites the democratic mission of our great American experiment.
Lani Guinier is a professor at Harvard Law School. Her latest book is “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America.”