- Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions
Fullinwider and Lichtenberg's Leveling the Playing Field is one of a number of recent elaborations upon the equities of college admissions. It joins the ranks of William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River (Princeton 1998), Chang et al.'s Compelling Interest (Stanford 2003), and other books that explain college admissions and justify why affirmative action is important in higher education. Unlike others, however, in the first half of their book Fu1linwider and Lichtenberg explain and critique in great detail various admissions policies that also create racial and class distinctions, such as open admissions, advantages for legacies, VIP admissions, early-admissions decisions, and so on. Chapter five explaining the advantages that wealthy applicants enjoy is particularly good. The second half of the book was less interesting to me, as it iterated what we tend to read in such books. There we are provided with a discussion of the uses of the SAT, the legality of affirmative action, the limits of current practices circumventing conservative court decisions (e.g., percentage plans), and possible reforms such as early intervention to prepare kids for college.
Fullinwider and Lichtenberg's central argument is that merit should determine college admissions, but that the idea of distributive justice combined with an understanding of the multiple missions of universities permits those institutions, nay, requires them, to consider things other than merit in selecting their student bodies. As they indicated, "other things being equal, it is desirable to enhance educational opportunities for those whose opportunities have been significantly limited." (p. 11, emphasis in original) These concept of justice and institutional missions justify race conscious policies, but they should not justify preferences to legacies and other practices that give advantages to those who already have them, since "individuals should neither be helped nor hindered in their efforts at educational advancement by factors irrelevant to the legitimate goals of educational institutions." (p. 13, emphasis in original) Those of us who care about social justice in higher education will agree with their central premise. I would like to point out, however, some assumptions we should find problematic.
First, we should have a problem with Fullinwider and Lichtenberg's assumptions about the SAT (discussed in great detail in chapter six through eight), since in typical fashion they privilege psychometrics to discuss the legitimacy of the test. This is troublesome because it illustrates the prevailing [End Page 376] belief that the answer to moral and political questions about selectivity, inequality, justice, and so on, can be answered through purportedly apolitical and ahistorical statistical analyses. The question of whether or not the SAT is a valid indicator of success in college suspends the more fundamental question about the morality of a society that deems success as one's narrow ability to perform well on such a test. Their discussion of the SAT also leaves me with the feeling that somehow we have invested a class of individuals—the "psychometricians"—with the power to dictate our lives in fundamental ways, using a discourse that only certain people can understand and arbitrate, and a legitimacy that forces us to address the problems they create and to question them using only the tools they authorize. Fullinwider and Licthenberg, seduced apparently like many of us by pshychometrics, misread the arguments against the SAT as being about the validity of the test. Those arguments may be read, however, as raising the slippery, but fundamental, question about what kind of society we want and who or what gets to decide that, and I would like us to reconsider the morality of authorizing the "psychometricians" to provide the dispositive answers to such a question.
Second, and even more troublesome for me, are their assumptions about merit. The book's second chapter titled "Demystifying Merit" actually doesn't. There are some good points, particularly that there exists a disproportion between merit and reward, so...