Diversity, Admissions, and Merit in the Ivy League and Oxbridge

April 25, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

On Tuesday, April 22, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 to allow states to ban affirmative action, or the use of race as a factor in admissions to state universities. The ruling, which upheld Michigan’s constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, came on the heels of last June’s controversial Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which a white applicant rejected for admission to the University of Texas sought to challenge the school’s race-conscious admissions policy.

Natasha Warikoo, a current RSF Visiting Scholar and Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is examining student perspectives on admissions policies at elite institutions in the U.S. and the U.K. Drawing from 144 in-depth interviews with undergraduates at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford, Warikoo’s research focuses on how students’ conceptions of diversity and merit, along with institutional supports for inter-cultural contact, inform campus experiences, especially related to race.

In a new interview with the Foundation, she discussed her ongoing comparative research, including the ways in which the different admissions policies across two regions can significantly influence how students view themselves and their fellow classmates.

Q. Your research here at RSF investigates the way undergraduate students at elite universities in the U.S. (Harvard and Brown) and the U.K. (Oxford and Cambridge) understand the relationship between meritocracy and admissions. Could you give a brief summary of the main differences between universities' admissions considerations in these two regions, and explain how the admission process subsequently shapes students' conceptions of merit?

In the United States, elite private universities practice holistic admissions, in which they take into account a person’s circumstances in childhood and potential contributions to campus life. So, beyond SAT scores and Grade Point Averages, which of course are important, are dimensions such as affirmative action, recruiting athletes for sports teams, legacy considerations (i.e., did your parent go to that university?), and any special leadership experiences or developed talents. The admissions essay is also incredibly important. In Britain, at Oxford and Cambridge (or, Oxbridge, as they’re often collectively called) students are assessed according to their performance on national exams, subject-specific exams for some majors, an on-campus interview, and an essay. The essay is less important, especially compared to the interview, which is really where the decision is made. Professors in the subject a student wants to study interview the student and assess her “potential to succeed” at the university. Until recently, Oxbridge admissions did not officially take disadvantage into consideration, though some colleges (subdivisions) within Oxbridge were known for admitting more nontraditional students than others.

I didn’t expect students’ views on merit to align so closely with what their universities practice as they did. U.S. students expressed a belief in collective merit—everyone brings something unique to the cohort and together they make an incredibly strong cohort that fosters a provocative learning environment. Under this collective merit, being an underrepresented minority—black, Latino, or Native American—can be the “hook” that one brings to the table. Some U.S. students also expressed a belief that evaluations of merit should be calibrated, so that an individual should be evaluated according to the opportunities she had available to her, a relative metric. In Britain, students expressed a more universalist approach to merit, whereby individuals should be evaluated according to their exam grades and interview performance, without attention to background. Here is an example to illustrate the difference. Let’s say there are two applicants. One attends a school in which two advanced courses are offered and she takes both and does well in both, and the other attends a school in which eight are offered and she takes four and does well in them. According to most of my U.S. respondents, the former student should get admitted, but according to most of my U.K. respondents, the latter should be admitted. U.S. students also paid attention to nonacademic qualities, unlike U.K. students.

So, overall students generally reproduced the language of their respective universities. Moreover, they thought theirs was the best, most fair one, and the one that brings the most “deserving” students to campus. Given that the students themselves have just succeeded in the incredibly competitive admissions processes, they may have a strong self-interest in legitimating the definitions of merit that their universities espouse.

Q. Your findings indicate that despite the hostility to affirmative action that we've seen expressed through recent cases such as Fisher v. University of Texas, students at elite U.S. universities actually value diversity and support admissions policies that foster diversity—to an extent. How do students tend to look at campus diversity, and how do their views reaffirm their own conceptions of self and status?

US students tended to express support—if ambivalent support—for affirmative action. They did so within the collective merit frame that calls for a diverse student body that leads to a better learning environment. They expressed what I call a diversity bargain. That is, they agreed that underrepresented minority students benefit from affirmative action, but only if (1) that policy does not harm them, such as by a minority peer gaining an internship or job through affirmative action “ahead” of themselves; and (2) minority peers admitted under affirmative action integrate, so that the benefits of that diversity can be realized. So, even for students admitted to Harvard and Brown, the “reverse discrimination” narrative was lurking in the backs of their minds, ready to deploy in other competitions in which they were not successful like they were in getting admitted to college. I heard much less talk of justifying affirmative action as a means for restorative justice, or to combat racial inequality.

Q. If admissions policies and students' ideas of merit are indeed closely linked in both the U.S. and U.K., how would restructuring university admissions change the way students legitimize their status at these elite institutions? And, since elite universities are still one important site in which social advantages are reproduced, are there implications for society at large?

Students seem to believe that their respective university admissions policies—while different across national contexts—is the one best system that brings the most deserving students to campus. The unspoken implication is that those who are not admitted are not deserving. I think this is damaging. The reality is that who is able to attend these universities is vastly unequal—under 20% of undergraduates at most elite U.S. universities come from low-income families, and in Britain while 7% of children attend private schools, nearly half of students admitted to Oxford come from private schools. And, students at these universities will go on in the future to make decisions related to merit, diversity, and inequality as leaders, so it is imperative that they understand how privilege and disadvantage shape individuals’ life chances, whether for admission to an elite university or to a job, or for access to the welfare state. Also, changing admissions might change what merit means in ways that reduce inequality rather exacerbate it. For example, if there were some kind of lottery built into the process, perhaps beyond a certain baseline of qualification to study, perhaps students would be able to see more clearly the arbitrary privileges that they and many of their peers on campus have enjoyed in the admissions process.

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