Opinion | Let’s Smash the College Admissions Process

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By David Brooks

Opinion Columnist

Within days or weeks, the Supreme Court is going to render a decision on the future of affirmative action in higher ed. If things go as expected, conservatives will be cheering as these policies are struck down — and progressives will be wailing.

But maybe we can all take this moment to reimagine the college admissions process itself, which has morphed into one of the truly destructive institutions in American society.

The modern college admissions era was launched over half a century ago with the best of intentions — to turn finishing schools for the Protestant establishment into talent factories for all comers. But, in the end, the elite universities merely exchanged one privileged elite for another. Today, you don’t need bloodlines stretching back to the Mayflower to have a decent shot at getting into an elite school, but you do need to be born into a family with the resources to make lavish investments in your early education.

In 2017 research led by Raj Chetty found that students from families in the top 1 percent of earners were 77 times as likely to get admitted into the Ivy League than students from families making less than $30,000 a year. In that same year, students from the top income quintile were 16 times more numerous at the University of North Carolina, a state school, than students from the bottom quintile.

We now have whole industries that take attendance at an elite school as a marker of whether they should hire you or not. So the hierarchies built by the admissions committees get replicated across society. America has become a nation in which the elite educated few marry each other, send their kids to the same exclusive schools, move to the same wealthy neighborhoods and pass down disproportionate economic and cultural power from generation to generation — the meritocratic Brahmin class.

And, as Michael Sandel of Harvard has argued, the meritocratic culture gives the “winners” the illusion that this sorting mechanism is righteous and inevitable and that they’ve earned everything they’ve got.

And then we sit around wondering why Trumpian populists revolt.

Worse, this system is built on a definition of “merit” that is utterly bonkers. In what sane world do we sort people — often for life — based on their ability to be teacher-pleasers from age 15 to 18?

In 2018, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote a powerful essay for The Times making the point that “academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years.”

We could have chosen to sort people on the basis of creativity, generosity or resilience. We could have chosen to promote students who are passionate about one subject but lag in the other subjects (which is how real-life success works). But instead we created this academic pressure cooker that further disadvantages people from the wrong kind of families and leaves even the straight-A winners stressed, depressed and burned out.

For the past few decades, Richard D. Kahlenberg, the author of “The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action,” has been arguing that we should replace the race-based system of affirmative action with a class-based system.

His proposal, to give preference to applicants from economically disadvantaged families, would address a core inequality in society. As Kahlenberg wrote in The Economist in 2018, social science research “finds that today, being economically disadvantaged in America poses seven times as large an obstacle to high student achievement as does race.”

Furthermore, he continues, if you structure the programs well, you can lift up the poor and middle class while simultaneously redressing the iniquities that have historically been visited upon African Americans. Writing in Dissent this year, Kahlenberg, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case seeking to overturn affirmative action, describes an exercise he did with the Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono. Based on data from Harvard and the University of North Carolina, they built an admissions model that would end racial preferences and preferences for the children of faculty members and alumni, but boost applicants from poor families and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

At Harvard, under this model, the share of African American, Hispanic and other underrepresented minority students would rise, and the share of first-generation students would more than triple.

The case for Kahlenberg’s proposal gets stronger every year. If the Supreme Court ditches racial preferences it becomes overwhelming.

Maybe this could be a moment when we finally step back and acknowledge that the elite meritocracy has spiraled out of control. It’s ridiculous that we have built a culture in which people make fine status distinctions among Princeton, Northwestern and Penn State as if they were 18th-century courtiers arguing over which aristocratic family had the grandest name.

It’s ridiculous that we’ve built a system that overvalues the sort of technocratic skills these universities cultivate and undervalues the social and moral skills that any healthy society should value more.

It’s sad that we’ve spent decades trying to build a more representative leadership class, but we’ve ended up with an educated elite that doesn’t know much about the rest of America and doesn’t seem notably more competent than the elites that preceded it.

If SCOTUS rips off the affirmative-action Band-Aid, maybe we can address the underlying wounds.

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David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and, most recently, “The Second Mountain.” @nytdavidbrooks

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