Redlining in Reverse

“Adversity scores” are the latest gimmick to justify racial preferences in college admissions

This essay first appeared in Law & Liberty on May 23, 2019 (here). Thanks to Real Clear Policy, The College Fix (here), the James Martin Center for Academic Renewal (here), and the Foundation for Economic Education (here).

Higher education has been infiltrated—and hijacked—by race-obsessed progressives who, in the name of “diversity” and “inclusion,” seek to propagate an ideology of identity politics in order to foster group-based grievances against a culture they condemn as racist, sexist, patriarchal, ethnocentric, heteronormative, classist, and xenophobic (among numerous other perceived failings). Heather Mac Donald’s bracing book The Diversity Delusion (2018) exposed the agenda of leftist academic bureaucrats who in recent decades have—with great success—transformed the nation’s colleges and universities into indoctrination centers for their anti-Western canon.

Ideological balance on college faculties, campus free speech, due process for students accused of sexual misconduct, robust classroom debate on “controversial” topics, tolerance for competing viewpoints, and even the ultimate goal of higher education–pursuit of knowledge itself (if it makes coddled students feel “triggered” or “unsafe”)—have all been sacrificed on the altar of social justice, diversity, and political correctness. Since this takeover of college campuses began in earnest during the 1970s, the only significant resistance has come from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a series of muddled decisions–beginning with Bakke in 1978, continuing with Grutter (2003) and most recently Fisher (2016)—has prohibited public universities from engaging in explicit racial preferences—quota-based affirmative action. 

Unfortunately, however, the Justices have deferred to the “expertise” of university administrators, allowing admissions officers to consider race (among other factors) for the purpose of realizing the presumed educational benefits of a “diverse” student body. Applicants’ race is still a significant factor in the admissions process at most schools, but colleges are careful to avoid leaving a paper trail documenting their rigid numerical goals. As a practical matter, at many selective schools less-qualified blacks are routinely admitted over white and Asian candidates with much better grades and test scores in order to meet demographic targets. Sly admissions officers use “holistic” methodologies—giving extra weight to certain applicants’ “special circumstances” and “life experiences”—to circumvent the ban on racial preferences. The transparent objective is artificially to boost the percentage of under-represented groups (such as African-Americans) enrolled, regardless of their qualifications.      

At Harvard and other schools, Asian applicants are challenging such sub rosa techniques as de facto race discrimination, and some states (including California and Michigan) have banned state-funded schools from discriminating in admissions due to race. Undaunted, the diversity fraud continues apace, with enormous disparities in the test scores of admitted candidates based on their race. Asians, who would be over-represented in a purely meritocratic admissions process, are hurt most by the reverse discrimination, although the supposed beneficiaries—less-qualified minorities, especially blacks—are also harmed as a result of the “mismatch effect” documented by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in their 2012 book, Mismatch.  Increasingly, “diversity” in admissions is widely viewed as a barely-concealed artifice for race discrimination.  

Thus, when the College Board (which administers the widely-used SAT test) recently unveiled its new “adversity score” to be assigned to all SAT-takers based on the socio-economic characteristics of the students’ schools and neighborhoods, observers were understandably skeptical. It didn’t help that David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO, was an architect of Common Core, the controversial system of K-12 curriculum content mandates that the Obama administration promoted nationwide. In addition to assigning an objective SAT score based on the students’ performance on the test, the College Board will give an additional, secret rating—disclosed to colleges during the application process but not to the students themselves. The rating takes into account the crime rate, poverty levels, and other factors deemed to represent the degree of privilege or “adversity” in the students’ respective communities, although the College Board declines to reveal what data it uses and how it weighs the factors. According to news reports, “Other elements of the adversity index include housing values, family median income, whether a student is a child of a single parent, or speaks English as a second language.”

However the data is derived or weighed, lumping people together based on their zip code resembles nothing so much as the now-banned practice of banks and other financial institutions which rejected loan applicants based solely on where they lived.  It was called “redlining,” and civil rights advocates condemned it as discrimination. Consumers applying for credit cards, mortgages, and other types of loans deserve to be judged on their individual merits, not based on their address or the general characteristics of their school, community, or neighbors. No one should be prejudiced by the actual or perceived faults of another—or receive credit for someone else’s actions. Applying to college is no different.

College admissions should be based on merit: students’ intellectual ability and aptitude for achievement. These qualities are not always accurately reflected in applicants’ grades, class rank, and test scores. Sometimes other factors warrant consideration. Human beings are unique, not fungible, regardless of where they live or attend school. If college admissions officers wish to look beyond objective metrics (such as SAT scores) to assess a candidate’s academic potential, they can and should consider the personal characteristics of applicants: extra-curricular activities, demonstrated leadership, special talents or athletic ability, evidence of overcoming deprivation or family hardship through hard work and determination, and so forth. (A candidate’s race or ethnicity should never be considered.)

Personal characteristics are highly individual in nature. No credible “adversity score” can be calculated based on the collective or aggregate characteristics of a particular neighborhood or high school. Such macro data-gathering is both crude and superficial. Generalizing in this manner—imputing group traits to an individual—is the essence of stereotyping, like denigrating people who live “on the wrong side of the tracks.” While purporting to be “scientific,” the adversity score is by definition imprecise—a statistical meat ax instead of a personalized scalpel.  For example, it is unlikely that the College Board’s proprietary algorithms would have captured the pathos of J.D. Vance’s early life—as depicted in his remarkable memoir Hillbilly Elegy (2016)—based only on his home town of Middletown, Ohio, or the public high school he attended there. Yet identifying the J.D. Vances of the world—diamonds in the rough—should be the goal of “holistic” review by college admissions officers, rather than simply meeting racial quotas.

Not all families who live in primarily lower or lower-middle class neighborhoods are poor (or “disadvantaged”), just as not all families who live in more affluent areas are wealthy (or “privileged”). Students whose parents chose to send their children to private school should not be at a categorical disadvantage versus those who attended the local public school. Within any population—be it a high school student body or a geographic area—there will be a distribution of disparate data points which vary around the mean. This is why such populations are graphically depicted by a bell curve rather than a flat line.  As one critic recognized, “Measuring neighborhood adversity is not the same as assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit.” The notion that “privilege” or “adversity” can be determined by assuming uniformity among all students in a particular school or neighborhood, and then reduced to a numerical score, is simply absurd.

If colleges want to take applicants’ “adversity” into account, the only way to do so fairly and accurately is to consider their life experience on an individual basis—by listening to their personal stories. The College Board’s latest innovation is, at best, a redistributionist effort to level the socio-economic playing field by giving bonus points to applicants facing presumed hardship and subtracting points for presumed privilege. This is not a proper role for college admissions officers. Life is not a game of golf, and assigning arbitrary “handicaps” in what should be a meritocratic process reeks of unfairness. The Wall Street Journal correctly identified the real motive for the College Board’s subterfuge, which is even worse than egalitarian social engineering: “Colleges want to get out in front of a possible legal ban on race-based preferences.” Many of the adversity score’s variables correlate with minority status, and cynics understandably assume that the goal is to allow colleges to continue to grant racial preferences surreptitiously—quotas by stealth.

With “holistic” admissions—corrupted by diversity zealots into a pretext for racial and ethnic preferences—increasingly being challenged as illegal discrimination, and the SAT itself recently exposed as vulnerable to bribery and cheating, it is no wonder that the SJWs running higher education have resorted to new tricks. The College Board’s “adversity score” is obviously designed to serve as a proxy for race and to enable colleges to grant racial preferences (and even to achieve racial quotas) without–wink, wink—looking at the applicants’ race. The seemingly objective “adversity score” provides a patina of neutrality to race-obsessed university admissions officers.

Anthony Carnevale, a former College Board employee now working for Georgetown University, admitted as much: “The purpose is to get to race without using race.” The “adversity score” is, therefore, a scam—a hoax. Calling the score a “backdoor to racial quotas in college admissions,” Heather Mac Donald charged in City Journal that

Advocates of this change claim that it is not about race. That is a fiction…. Colleges pay lip service to socioeconomic diversity, but that concept is inevitably a surrogate for race…. The only guaranteed beneficiaries of this new scheme are the campus diversity bureaucrats. They have been given another assurance of academically handicapped students who can be leveraged into grievance, more diversity sinecures, and lowered academic standards.  

Despite the obvious flaws in the adversity score, 50 colleges reportedly used it last year as part of a beta test. Incredibly, the Wall Street Journal states that “The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.” University governing boards, alumni, parents of college applicants, legislators (in the case of state-funded schools), and perhaps even the U.S. Department of Education, should resist this outrageous end-run around the ban on racial preferences in admissions.

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