Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mutliplying by Pie

The court case around Harvard University's use of race as a factor in admissions is being billed as a trial for the future of affirmative action. And that's fair enough. But I tend to think of it as a verdict over a different aspect of American culture, one which it's perhaps guilty of, even though (or perhaps because) it never really makes it into the limelight.

The whole reason why there is a lawsuit over Harvard's admissions policy is that being admitted to Harvard, or any number of other high-powered schools, is a thing of value. And the number of seats available hasn't kept up with the demand. And maybe that's what we should be looking into.

Part of the things that makes certain schools desirable is the difficulty in getting into them. I fell into that trap back when I was in high-school. I went to a nice college-prep school that not just anyone could attend. You had to pass a placement test to get in. I made it, and in my mind, this was proof that I was smarter than my junior-high classmates that didn't make it. But it was likely a certain amount of simple luck, in the end. I'm pretty sure that there were more people who made the cutoff than there were slots available, and so some number of people who would have thrived there went to other schools instead. And it's likely that some of them wound up in less-selective schools, simply because there weren't enough spaces for them to get into the places they'd applied to, since selective high-schools were kind of thin on the ground where I grew up. And, perhaps more importantly, they couldn't easily scale to demand over the short term.

And being a Black student at a college-prep high school, some of my fellow students has no qualms about saying that I was there due to affirmative action. Which was really simply a semi-oblique way of saying that I wasn't actually smarter than some of the people who didn't make it. And that I wasn't actually smart enough to be in the same school as themselves. Unfortunately, I spent a good part of that four years looking in vain for something that would shut them up.

I suspect that a lot of people go through this sort of thing, if for no other reason than as the eligible pool of applicants grows larger, the supply of seats doesn't scale to it. And this means that when some new demographic group is granted eligibility, the incumbents have less. It may not be a completely zero-sum game, but it's close enough that it may as well be, at least in the minds of participants in the game.

This, I think, is where we failed. When the United States made a social commitment to open the doors to valuable institutions to people who had been previously locked out of them, there wasn't a corresponding commitment to increase the capacity of those institutions to accommodate the greater numbers. And so without more slices of the pie, people who had previously been able to count on a slice found that others were being granted them instead. And the Harvard case is, to a degree, about getting those slices back.

To the degree that Affirmative Action is broken, this is why. It sought to even out the distribution of opportunity, but it also, at the same time, sought to even out the distribution of privation. This was, in large part, I suspect, due to the fact that while rules, regulations and guidelines can impact how college seats are apportioned, they are much less effective as increasing the number of seats, and the numbers of pipelines to those seats. And that is what we're still feeling the lack of.

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