Those opposing affirmative action argued before the Supreme Court in the fall that a deep commitment to individual fairness should trump any concern for diversity. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, claimed that she was the victim of racial discrimination because Latino and African-American students with lower scores had been admitted to the University of Texas, while she, who is white, had not. In contrast, proponents of affirmative action argued that diversity is a vital, compelling state interest.
If admission to college were based solely upon test scores, there would be no need for admissions offices: Students would just submit their test scores and high-school grade-point averages, and a computer would admit them in rank order. No college has ever done so, and none ever will. For a wide range of reasons, admissions officers make assessments based on such factors as high-school reputation, recommendation letters, evidence of “late blooming” and community engagement, alumni parents, balance for region and gender, and the wishes of financial donors.
Experienced professionals from military, corporate, and educational worlds have filed briefs in the case supporting the diversity side of the argument. One brief, from 25 four-star generals, admirals, and other military leaders, argued that “a highly qualified and racially diverse officer corps is not a lofty ideal,” but rather “a mission-critical national-security interest.” The military depends upon racially diverse ROTC programs, the generals said, which in turn depend upon racially diverse student populations.
The pre-eminent path to admission to West Point is relevant to this claim about test scores versus other considerations. The military academy, which is designated by Congressional mandate to train Army leaders for the coming generation, gives every Congressional district two admits—an unapologetic quota system. The recommendation of the representative from each district is the ticket to admission, not rankings based upon test scores.
But what of the very embodiment of meritocracy, the annual allocation of National Merit Scholar awards, by the group whose very name represents the meritocratic ideal, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation?
It comes as a shock to many to learn that those recipients are selected under a geographically based quota system, which insulates students from competition with their peers in other states. As a consequence, the states—which confer semifinalist status to roughly one half of one percent of high-school students—have radically different standards.
At the first stage of the selection process, about 16,000 semifinalists for the Merit Scholar awards are selected by test score alone, nationwide. Then comes the interesting part, relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision about what is fair in judging applicants: test scores alone versus diversity. Much like those admitted to West Point, winners of the National Merit Scholar awards are chosen by state.
Here is how it works: The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is divided into three parts, worth 80 points each, so that a perfect score would be 240. The cutoff point for each state is different, however. As the chart below shows, in some states the winning score must be as high as 221 to 218 (Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Maryland, Connecticut). In other states, it is as low as 202 to 200 (Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming). How is that fair? Why not just judge everyone by the same standard, and award Merit Scholarships to those with the highest scores—at the top of the national pool? These are not State Merit Scholars. These are National Merit Scholars.
It is noteworthy that the opponents of affirmative action are not attacking the way in which National Merit Scholars are chosen. Perhaps that is because they understand that it would not serve the interests of the nation better if all Merit Scholars were chosen from only a few states, all of which are “blue,” with none going to the states lagging far behind, all of which are “red.”
And yet because we are a nation that wishes to allocate Merit Scholars to students from coast to coast, and from Alaska (204) and Hawaii (211), we opt for diversity over individual scores on standardized tests. The logic is identical to that of the military academies, not only West Point but the Naval and Air Force Academies as well. Would it serve the nation’s interest better to have its military officers selected from only a few states? In her majority opinion on the topic, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003) that the United States needs to have diversity in its leadership class as a compelling state interest—that it would be intolerable for one segment of the population to dominate those roles.
As the Supreme Court deliberates the Fisher case and the future of affirmative action, the justices need to ask the same question that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and the military academies have posed: Does a single-minded reliance on “individual merit” as measured by test scores serve the national interest? If its answer is a resounding no, the court will need to explain to history why race—the mechanism of the nation’s most noxious form of systemic discrimination over four centuries—cannot, unlike the roulette of geographical residence (Congressional district or state boundary line) be taken into account in efforts to ensure that the nation’s leaders are as diverse as the nation’s racially and ethnically diverse population.
Troy Duster is a senior fellow and Chancellor’s Professor at the Warren Institute for Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a past president of the American Sociological Association.