Merit vs. Diversity

Los Angeles — Merit. It’s the star around which the admissions profession revolves, and a major theme in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, the ubiquitous word too often has a narrow definition, Arthur L. Coleman said here on Thursday at a conference hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. Mr. Coleman, a managing partner and co-founder of Education Counsel LLC, said colleges must do more to articulate how they define “merit” in their admissions process—and how that definition entwines with diversity.

Fisher hinges on the legal question of whether and how colleges may use race in admissions decisions. Yet as officials assess their own race-conscious admission policies, Mr. Coleman said, they must remember that the court of public opinion is as crucial as any court of law. That means  describing how diversity is essential to student success during and after college. That means showing how race-conscious policies align with—and achieve—specific educational outcomes. And that means telling a story that’s broader than test scores and grade-point averages.

“If we are not talking about merit in this fulsome way, we are missing the very point,” he said.

Admissions officers, Mr. Coleman said, tend to fixate on process—the how of their evaluations—while those who challenge race-conscious admission policies often rely on “substance” in the form of rhetorical arguments about fairness. Those arguments, as he described them, pit merit—as defined by test scores and grade-point averages—against diversity, as if they were opposites.

This is the false dichotomy that colleges must confront, several admissions officials here agreed, though it’s easier said than done. For one thing, colleges have long affirmed the notion that standardized tests and grade-point averages are unassailable measures of applicants’ merit, as well as of their institutional greatness. So it’s no wonder that some applicants with high scores and top-notch grades expect all colleges’ gates to swing open for them, and cry foul when they do not.

Mr. Coleman, a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and top official in its Office for Civil Rights, recalled consulting with several colleges that had legally sound race-conscious admissions policies, yet could not effectively describe their benefits. “Remarkably, we are not capturing the thoughtfulness, the power, and the intelligence behind telling the story,” he said.

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