Opinion | The Case Against ‘Excellence’ at Universities

Opinion | The Case Against ‘Excellence’ at Universities
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There are a number of differences between liberal arts colleges in New England and the U.C.s. in terms of size, admissions goals, the students they attract, etc. But over the past year, we’ve gotten a preview of what a post-standardized-test U.C. system might look like, and it has shown that the lessons of Bowdoin and Bates might have some relevance.

This past January — to great fanfare — the U.C. system announced that it had received a record number of applications from Latino and Black students at their campuses, which in turn led to a record number of underrepresented minority freshmen in the incoming class of 2021-22. “These remarkable numbers are a testament to the hard work and resiliency of students and their families across California,” Michael Drake, the president of the U.C. system, wrote in a statement. “I am particularly heartened by the social and economic diversity of those offered a place at U.C. Fall will be an exciting time on our campuses.”

At first glance, these numbers do seem impressive. According to preliminary findings on California applicants released by the U.C.s, the number of Black freshmen admitted systemwide rose from 3,987 in 2020 to 4,608 in 2021. But these record numbers should be considered in the proper context: Applications, in general, hit record highs in 2021. The percentages of Black and Latino applicants stayed almost exactly the same. In 2019, Black students made up 5 percent of admitted students at U.C.s. In 2020, they made up 5 percent. In 2021 they once again made up 5 percent. With Latino students, the increase was marginal — 34 percent in 2019, 36 percent in 2020 and 37 percent in 2021. If dropping the SAT and ACT had any effect on income inequality, it didn’t show up this year. The percentage of California freshman applicants with low family income fell from 43.5 percent in 2020 to 41.5 percent in 2021.

The U.C.s did admit a record number of students for this year, but they also rejected more students than ever before. At U.C.L.A., the admission rate went from 14.4 percent to 10.8 percent, which should be seen as a problem for a public university in the second-biggest city in the country but, of course, is not. Instead of reflecting on what amounts to decreased opportunities for all students in the state to attend U.C.L.A., the school declared victory. “I’m over the moon,” a U.C.L.A. official told The Los Angeles Times, referring to the increase in minority students. “The years of hard work … bore fruit for us, and it’s a good feeling.”

But Black enrollment at U.C.L.A. went from 6 percent in 2020 to just 7 percent in 2021. Latino enrollment went from 23 percent to 26 percent. Asian American enrollment, for what it’s worth, fell from 42 percent to 39 percent. At Berkeley, Black enrollment numbers fell slightly, while white enrollment went up. Meanwhile, at U.C. Merced, one of the least selective U.C.s, Latino enrollment numbers fell from 54 percent of the incoming freshman class to 50 percent; so did the total percentage of underrepresented minority students entering the freshman class.

It should surprise nobody that when choosing to spin this news, the U.C.s chose to talk about what happened at U.C.L.A. and not at U.C. Merced which is, by far, the most diverse campus in the system. Why? According to The Upshot, the median annual family income of a student at Merced is $59,100. At UCLA? $104,900. Berkeley? $119,900. That’s the entire game: The elite schools with wealthy students and alumni tout minuscule increases in diversity, while schools with more working-class students like Merced, where over 57 percent of students come from underrepresented minority groups, don’t matter.

At elite schools, diversity is for rich kids. In his opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark Supreme Court case regarding affirmative action in college admissions, Justice Lewis Powell wrote about something called the Harvard plan, which came to define the benefits of diversity. “A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” Powell’s logic is why Merced’s falling diversity rate does not get discussed and why we never hear about the underrepresented minority populations at large state schools that admit most of their applicants. First and most important, those schools don’t have problems with diversity. Second, if you take Powell’s logic to its natural conclusion, the “farm boy from Idaho” or “Black student” is on campus to broaden the perspective of the Boston Brahmin and, perhaps, teach him a few lessons about tolerance. Maybe this is a cynical read, but it’s driven by an even more cynical way of thinking that reduces young people into data points and waxes philosophical about what their backgrounds might add to a campus.



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