Natasha Warikoo, professor of sociology at Tufts University and author of The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, leads a conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion in college and university admissions.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to CFR’s Higher Education Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be posted on our website at CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Natasha Warikoo with us to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion in college and university admissions. Dr. Warikoo is professor of sociology at Tufts University and an expert on racial and ethnic inequality in education. She is a former Guggenheim fellow and previously served as associate professor of education at Harvard University. Prior to her academic career, Dr. Warikoo taught in New York City’s public schools and worked at the U.S. Department of Education. She has written several books on race and higher education. Her most recent is entitled The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.
So, Dr. Warikoo, thank you very much for being with us today. We really appreciate it. I thought you could just take us through the current diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies in college and university admissions, and what you’ve seen over the course of your career, and where you see this going.
WARIKOO: Great. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for the invitation, Irina. And thank you to all of you for being here. I can see your names, although I can’t see your faces. So what I thought I would do, as I thought about this question about DEI and admissions, is sort of to take us—to zoom out a little bit. So I’ll talk about affirmative action because I think when we think about DEI in the context of admissions that’s sort of what immediately comes to mind. And I’ve written about this. But I want to take us broader and think also just about admissions more broadly. And some of the arguments I want to make are from my forthcoming book with Polity Press, Is Affirmative Action Fair?
So I want to start by saying that I think we need to move away from this idea that there is one best, most fair way of admitting students to college. At colleges we tend to see—we tend to treat admissions as a reward for individual achievement, right? You work—the narrative is that you work hard, and you can get—you show your grit, and you show your achievements, and you can get in. And then in that context, affirmative action becomes one small kind of fix to ensure that the system is fair to everyone, along with things like increasing financial aid and recruiting around the country so students are aware of the university.
And I found this in my interviews with Ivy League students in Diversity Bargain, I found that students—they thought that admissions worked, and it was because affirmative action kind of corrected underrepresentation. And they were satisfied with how admissions were done, despite the fact that multiple groups, including working-class students, Black students, and Latinx students, continue to be underrepresented. But they felt like it was sort of fixed enough. And I want to argue that, instead, we should think about admissions as something that furthers university goals and not just selects the kind of, quote/unquote, “best of the best.”
So let me explain. In a series of lectures in 1963, the president—the then-President of the University of California Clark Kerr, noticed that universities had become what he called multi-universities. They were organizations beholden to multiple purposes and goals. Teaching, research, and the public good. And not much has changed since then. A recent study of college mission statements found that these three goals endure. Most college mission statements express commitments to teaching, as well as the public good, inculcating civic values. And in general, U.S. universities see themselves as much more kind of embedded in the fabric of society compared to expressing the goal of bettering society, making it more equitable, commitments to diversity, much more so than universities in Europe and Britain.
And many Americans also imagine higher education to be a kind of engine for social mobility. We think about, you know, since the 1950s the expansion of higher education. We sort of look to higher education as a mechanism for bettering ourselves and our futures. So what colleges do—when they admit students, then, should be in pursuit of these goals, not—again, not an individual certification of merit, or who’s deserving. And, implicitly with who’s deserving comes who’s not deserving. And I think that colleges really need to make this goal to prospective and current students explicit. So rather than talking about, oh, this year we have the best class ever, the lowest admit rate ever. We should be really sort of talking about admissions in the context of what we’re trying to do as a university and embedded in society.
So the late Lani Guinier in her book The Tyranny of Merit (sic; The Tyranny of the Meritocracy) argued that we should consider college admissions as a mechanism to a more robust democracy. And when we do that, Guinier argued that it should lead us to discard standardized testing as a part of the application process in favor of broad, inclusive representation. And I want to argue, if we consider the goal of social mobility, it becomes even more unclear why certain kinds of measures of academic achievement in general have become the central focus for college admissions. In fact, one might even make the case that academics should play the opposite role to what it plays. If colleges want to promote social mobility, perhaps admissions should be akin to means-tested social supports, provided to those who need it most whether because of their financial—the financial hardships that their families endure, racial exclusion, or weak academic skills.
But of course, this is not what we do. Families of a majority of students at top colleges pay more per year—you know, are not on financial aid, pay more per year than the median household income in the United States. And a 4.0 grade point average, of course, seems increasingly to be a prerequisite to even be considered for admissions at top colleges, especially if you’re not a child of an alum or a donor—a high-profile donor. So, I think it’s hard to shake the belief that selective colleges should foreground achievement in admissions and that there’s one best way to do this. Unlike the labor market, for which we understand that applicants are chosen for jobs on the basis of what a company needs not a reward for the kind of best applicant, you know, we understand that the marketing job would go to a different person than the head of engineering job, and that would be a different person from the head of finance job.
But in higher education, we describe admissions as a reward for hard work and dedication. It’s the backbone of our beliefs in equal opportunity and meritocracy. But seeing admissions as a competition to decide who’s the most deserving reinforces ideas about who’s deserving and undeserving. Again, given the outcomes of admissions, it says that people who are economically advantaged, who are White, who are Asian American, are more worthy and deserving, because those groups tend to be who are the ones that are rewarded in the admissions process. So this tension between an individualist, winner-takes-all meritocracy and a process of selection that seeks to fulfill multiple missions of research, teaching, and the public good, and social mobility, is what lies, to me, at the heart of controversies over affirmative action.
So let me say a little bit about affirmative action. I see it less as a kind of fix to this individual meritocracy, but rather as a critical policy, an important policy, that promotes four important organizational goals. The first is a diverse learning environment. This is the argument that the U.S. Supreme Court, starting in the 1978 Bakke decision has said is allowable under the law. So Justice Powell in the Bakke decision said: Well, as long as you have a narrowly tailored version of attention to race, then, you know, if you are looking at race in order to fulfill a university mission of having a diverse learning environment in which everyone flourishes, then that is allowed.
And since then, there’s been decades of research from social scientists showing all of the benefits from these diverse environments in terms of cognitive capacity, racial attitudes, civic participation in the future. So we know that affirmative action works in this way. Now, I highlight in my book, The Diversity Bargain, the problem with solely talking about this kind of diverse learning environment argument is that it ignores inequality. So we also need to talk about inequality. And colleges, I think, need to do a lot better job of talking about racial inequality, the racial inequality that is really the root of—and the history of affirmative action.
And that leads me to my second argument for affirmative action. And when we think about the goal of promoting social mobility and opportunity, we have to take into consideration race in admissions. We have plenty of evidence of racial inequality. I won’t go through all of this, but just to say that, sometimes people say, well, it’s related to class and not race. But even within the same social class, we see racially different opportunities. So working-class Whites tend to live in more advantaged neighborhoods than working-class Blacks. And a recent study found that Black—upper middle-class Black adults—excuse me. Black adults who grew up in upper middle-class families are much more likely to experience downward mobility than are White adults who grew up in upper middle-class families. And so we see this kind of intergenerational differences in terms of the transmission of privilege.
Third, reparations. And reparations not just from the harms of slavery, but also from U.S. intervention in foreign wars abroad. And, again, if we think about these organizational goals of playing a civic role, and these universities as wanting to be kind of bastions of racial equity, we know that many elite colleges have benefitted from the slave trade, from slave labor, from—you know, have had faculty who have sort of been part of the foreign policies that led to poverty in other countries. And so reparations is another way that I think—another institutional goal that can be met through affirmative action.
And lastly, a diverse, legitimate leadership. We know that affirmative action can lead to diversity in leadership. President Obama talked about how he thinks he benefitted from affirmative action, just as Sotomayor talks about how she was an affirmative action baby. If we think that that symbolic representation matters—and it matters in order for leadership to be seen as legitimate, to be—for people to be seen—to see leadership that looks like them is increasingly important. And so, again, thinking about the contribution to society, this is one small way that higher education—a role that higher education can play.
So the last thing I want to say about this is that any way you admit students, there are winners and there are losers. There’s no one best way of defining and measuring merit. It’s always historically and geographically contingent. You know, other countries do admissions very differently. When I talk to British students, they—Britain has a very different way of admitting students, but they think their way is the best. And even within the U.S., we’ve changed the way we define merit and admit students over time as well. And so history suggests that reasonable people and selective colleges will disagree about how to admit students.
So overall, I want to—I think we need to change our typical vision for college admissions as an individualist, meritocratic competition. When we consider affirmative action within a broader consideration of the purposes of selective higher education in the U.S., we can see its true worth. College admission is not and should not be an evaluation of the worthiness or deservingness of individuals. And, you know, we need greater representation to make sure our future leaders are exposed to diverse perspectives and lived experiences, that our future leadership is seen as legitimate.
Colleges in the United States are embedded in a society plagued by rampant inequality, including racial inequality, and one in which we often turn to education as a mechanism to address that inequality. And so, I think the lack of clarity sometimes on university purposes allowed families to map their own meanings onto selection. And I think that universities need to correct these misunderstandings explicitly.
So, of course, affirmative action is enough to fully address the diverse roles of our universities. It’s one small policy. And its impact might be paltry compared to increasing financial aid, increasing funding for state and community colleges, increasing funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, social supports for working-class and poor families. The list goes on. But I want to remind everyone that these policies are not zero-sum. It’s not that we need to pursue one or the other. We should pursue all of them, alongside affirmative action, and not as a replacement. And so, supporting affirmative action doesn’t preclude supporting an expansion of all these other provisions to increase equity, either within higher education or beyond.
So let me stop here, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you so much for that overview. We appreciate it. And now we are going to go to all of you for your questions and comments.
So I’m going to go first, great, to Beverly Lindsay.
Q: Good afternoon, Natasha. It’s good to hear your comments.
I have a few comments, but I also then want to raise a question on something that was not covered. As you probably know, Manuel Justiz and I wrote the book in 2001 on The Quest for Equity in Higher Education. And you probably know a number of my colleagues, like Roger Geiger, dealing with historical aspects. For example, of how testing came into place, because there were too many Jewish students at elite universities like Yale and Harvard. I should tell you also that I am still a professor of higher education and international policy studies.
But one of the questions or concerns that Manny and I still have, and that is the change from affirmative action to multicultural education to DEI. And what we often see is there’s these changes that occur that don’t necessarily reflect what is done in the actual admissions office. That’s one issue. The second really critical issue, and you’re welcome to read my book that’s just coming out—it actually came out this past month, about three days ago, on higher education policy in developing and Western countries. And that is league tables, ratings. Parents are doing everything to be in that higher education university, whether it’s a public Ivy like Berkeley, or Texas, or Wisconsin, or Virginia.
And no one is raising—or, very few people are raising these questions about second-tier. So you have the issue of ratings. And the U.S. News and World Report, of course, is one that many American parents will look at, but internationally it’s the Times Higher Education and QS, for example. So that’s one issue. But the second issue, which I mentioned first, was DEI. Because historically and currently, many of the people who are in DEI are people of color. And they have no faculty rank. So they’re really not involved in the admission process, whether at the undergraduate or the graduate level. So if you could briefly offer some comments about those two key areas. Thank you.
WARIKOO: Thank you. Well, I didn’t know that your book was out, so I’m super excited to read it. Thanks for highlighting that. So, yeah, I think these are two really important issues. So I’ll start with the rankings. It’s clear that the rankings are just—have this terrible influence in higher education. I don’t know if you’ve seen that book by Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder, I forgot the title of it, but they basically did this study of—they looked at law schools and how law schools seem to respond to rankings and how it’s sort of changing the organizations. And they highlight very clearly this—first, all of—having a ranking system—and I kind of see a parallel to admissions, right?
When you rank people—we’re so obsessed with selection and ranking in the United States that when you have this system people are always looking up. Like, oh, OK, well, if there’s a ranking and I’m number ten, I want to be number nine, and then I want to be number eight. And so they’re always looking up. And then they’re trying to figure out ways to sort of increase their standing. And they’re—doing things that are not always beneficial, certainly not beneficial to students who are kind of nontraditional students, right? And they are doing things like rather than more financial aid for—based on what your family needs, merit-based financial aid, which is their way of bringing in students with higher SAT scores to bump their average SAT score, so that they can get a bump in the rankings.
And then, you always have to ask yourself, for what? What does that—what does that ultimately get you? And again, I think we have to go to first principles. What is our purpose, right? What are we trying to do as a university? Do we—can we fulfill that mission with a student body that is increasingly privileged and increasingly does not look like a cross-section of eighteen-year-olds in the United States? And so, to me, the answer is no. (Laughs.) And I think we have a problem in that way.
So I totally agree with you that the rankings are a huge problem. And I think the most elite colleges maybe can get away with not participating, but I think the lower-status colleges say, well, if we don’t participate then, they look for the data and then just put us lower than we should be. So they always—they feel compelled. I think it will take an organized effort to sort of move away from those rankings. But I think they are incredibly damaging. And they—ultimately, they hurt students who are—who don’t have the educational opportunities as much as privileged students do.
In terms of DEI, I think that this is a problem not just in higher education. I think in the corporate sector, all over we see, on the one hand this promising increase in chief diversity officers, heads of diversity in a lot of different kinds of organizations. Even in school districts we’re seeing this. And on the other hand, the extent to which they have power to impact change varies tremendously. And, if that person being—a solo voice, and it really depends on how much they are backed by the administration, by leadership.
In terms of admissions specifically, my experience is that a lot of people go into admissions because they care about diversity and equity, right? And they—I had a lot of former students who were admissions officers when I was teaching students who were getting their master’s degrees in higher education. And they really—they talked about how they thought that being in this role they could help shape the student body of a selective college in a way that would increase opportunity.
And then they would—a lot of them talked about then what they would find is that there are all of these things that don’t allow them to really do that to the extent that they would like—and I think even heads of admissions would like—because, you know, they have to—they can only give out a certain number of—amount of financial aid. And even in a place like Harvard, right, with this crazy endowment, is admitting students that almost half of them can pay full price—which is, again, higher than median household income in this country. And so their whole financial model is based on the assumption that you’re not going to be a representative group of students.
So I think they come across all kinds of things. Athletic recruiting is a mechanism of privilege. The development office. And so I think—I think it’s going to take a much broader shift in the culture of higher education to expand admissions. And I really think that we need to sort of come back to what are we trying to do here? And does this fit our mission? To me, when you have a student body that is not representative, it’s not—how are you developing the leaders for tomorrow in that case? So.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Jeff Rosensweig.
Q: Thank you, Professor. And I’ve learned a lot from you.
And I like your zero-sum versus sometimes positive-sum. I’m in Atlanta at Emory University, where we have wonderful schools like Spelman and Morehouse, and a tremendous amount of money is flowing to them now, and ultimately will be better for our society. And that’s an example of positive-sum. But let’s go back to zero-sum. At Emory, I’m very proud because we rank right near the top of the top twenty or top twenty-two universities in terms of social mobility. Having students, for instance, from the bottom fifth.
But living in Georgia, we got two Democratic senators, we voted for President Biden, very close margins, as you know, because a lot of White traditional Republicans voted—(laughs)—Democratic. But you sense a backlash as you listen to people whisper that, for instance, it sounds like—you may not use the word—but it sounds like quotas. You know, there’s 14 percent Hispanics persons in the U.S. We want 14 percent of Harvard to be Hispanic. A certain amount of people make over—make enough to pay tuition. Well, we shouldn’t have 50 percent from that group, even if it’s two Black doctors or their parents.
So I’m worried about perhaps a lack—I don’t know if you are going to issue a second edition someday of your book—but there’s been a tremendous sea-change in the last two years in college admissions, in a very big concern for DEI. We just searched for a new dean. We asked him to write three essays. An entire essay was what have they done—and done, not just talked about—to enhance DEI, and what will they do, if they become dean? The rankings are now looking at schools and seeing what are they doing for DEI. So I do worry, if you are—if your book just may be two years too late. (Laughs.) Your book maybe pre-George Floyd instead of post. So that is my main concern there. But also my main—my other main concern is with the zero-sum. We all want more diversity, but are we risking—if we use your formulaic approach—going too far and having a backlash?
WARIKOO: Yeah. Thanks for your question. You know, I think part of the problem is that we don’t—I don’t think most people, myself included until probably I was in college or maybe even later, understand the reality of racial inequality and the history of racial exclusion in the United States. So, we all learn about slavery, the heinous history of slavery and segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. But I think there’s less attention to, well, how did we get here?
Why is there—why do we see these racial differences, even among the upper-middle class, even among working-class families? What— how did that happen? And I think that—I don’t think many people really understand that, because we’re never taught it and we don’t talk about it. And I think—I actually think that is—rather than too much attention to it, I think not enough understanding of that history is part of the problem. So to me, the solution is not to move away from it.
In terms of—I’m certainly not advocating quotas. I know that—legally that that wouldn’t work anyway. And I think that to me it’s just sort of canary in the coal mine, right? Just to sort of say, well, when we see these massive differences, it should say—it should make us go, hmm. Something’s off here. What’s going on? We say that this is a fair system. When you talk to most people in the country, they—young people, they want to go to college, they think it’s important. It just gives us pause. And that’s all I meant to highlight. I’m certainly not saying that there should be—that college student bodies should explicitly mirror the population around them.
So just to take the examples that you gave, the—the Atlanta elite colleges, like Black colleges and then historically predominantly White colleges like Emory—there’s a great book by Adam Harris called The State Must Provide, which is about the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And you see—one of the things you see in that history is the way that colleges—like my own college, Tufts University, like Emory, had the—even University of Georgia—have had the benefit of generations of building their endowment, right? And their endowment is built at a time from times when there was legal segregation.
And so these donations to these HBCUs is great, but it’s not—it’s not even coming close to making the resources for those colleges comparable to the resources that the historically—the predominantly White universities. And so, I think we have a long way to go to sort of truly equalize those colleges, even though I think there has been more attention.
And the zero-sum thing? I think you’re totally right. And one of the things that I have been talking about is the fact that why haven’t our selective colleges expanded enrollment, right? I mean, the population has been steadily growing since—I mean, with fits and starts. But they have not kept up with the increasing population and increasing interest in elite higher education over the last half-century. And so I do think one thing we could do is expand enrollment at these places. I mean, there’s so many amazing young people, these colleges reject so many applicants. There is—you know, they—nothing—their standards would not decrease. I don’t think there’s any real worry that anything would change.
But I think that it would provide opportunity to more people. And so—and it would feel less zero-sum, in that sense. I think part of the problem is you have declining admit rates making it feel like you’re kind of constantly in competition with each other. And that’s—we know the research on kind of group threat. That’s when group threat and anxiety about, well, if we have affirmative action then what about my group? That gets heightened through these kinds of processes. So certainly, I think that’s part of the problem as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go to Eric Hoffman next. He has a raised hand and wrote a question. So, Eric, why don’t you just unmute and identify yourself and ask it yourself.
Q: Sure. I’d be happy to. Can you hear me?
Q: Yes. Thank you, Professor, for all that important and interesting insight.
I’m the dean at a community college, and I oversee the honors college. And we—I’m in Miami, Florida. And we’re focused on, in the last two years, on a very strong DEI effort here to increase the number of Black and African American students. We are a Hispanic-serving and minority-serving institute, but our number of Black and African Americans aren’t the numbers we’d like it to be. Understanding implicit bias, institutional memory, and just plain inertia, how do we get those members of admissions committee on—sort of moving forward towards that goal?
Because it sounds easy, we put together mandates, put together programs. But at the end of the day, we’re working with people on these admissions committee, and they’re not always—there’s a little reluctance at times to change. That’s just human nature, right? So how do—what kind of evidence, what kind of strategies can we use to kind of move people along the continuum to get—to understand that we really need to examine and admit students, sometimes more holistically. Thank you.
WARIKOO: Yeah. Maybe you can answer a question, though. So what are they—what are they saying when they are kind of resisting admitting those students? What’s their worry?
Q: Well—(laughs)—not to expose too much—but it seems to be a similar refrain as it relates to let’s really focus on standardized scores as opposed to GPA and other holistic factors, when we know GPA is a five-times better predictor of college success than the standardized scores. But some individuals are so used to using sort of this metric of standardized scores, it’s hard to move them away from that, saying, you know, this isn’t really the best measure, most valid measure, of being successful in college.
WARIKOO: Yeah. Well, so I was going to say, one of the things you could do is just present this data, right? So, here’s the data on the predictive power of GPA, here’s the data on the predictive power of standardized test scores, here’s what the standardized test score adds, here’s what the racial difference is that we see in these scores. And I think, I don’t know—I mean, the history of standardized testing is a history of trying to prove the superiority of Whites over all people of color, right? I think when you understand that it’s, like, oh, OK, so this is the history of this.
And I also wonder if just observing students who are successful. Like, just profiles of students who maybe didn’t have that high SAT score and did well, and were able to sort of have—your college made a positive impact in their lives. And helping people see that either through someone coming to a meeting, or a profile, so that they—sometimes people need that story of—to sort of have this image in their head. So I think that can be something that can be convincing. Because I think sometimes there are these—there might be this sort of stereotype in their minds of, this is what these students are, they’re not going to be successful or take advantage, or what have you. But if they can see kind of what we call counter-stereotypic examples, that can sort of combat those stereotypes. So those are few things that come to mind for me. So it’s great that you’re doing that.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Let’s go to Jude Jones next.
Q: It’s a great presentation.
I don’t work in admissions. I’m a faculty member at Fordham University in New York. But I do a lot of things related to DEI work, and I do read applications at the admissions level for our honors program. But admission on the level of admitting for mission, I’m totally on board with that. It makes sense. I believe our universities should look and be more like a cross-section, as you said, of teenagers in our country right now. As a pragmatist—I teach philosophy and American pragmatism is one of my things—I always think in terms of, what an idea leads to as being what it means, right? And so one of the downstream consequences of admitting for mission is that mission is often—I think this relates to the previous question too—mission’s often out ahead of culture where inclusion is concerned.
Our institutions change very slowly, because that’s what institutions do, unfortunately. And students are rightly impatient with that, but there it is. And so what I find sometimes is that a disproportionate amount of the emotional labor of institutional change winds up falling to the students who come and then clamor for the reality that their admission would suggests would meet them when they get to schools that are not historically—have not historically been as committed to this as possible.
So the problem then becomes an unintended consequence of admitting for diversity as a mission value—which, again, I’m totally on board for—is that that gap between the ideal and the real then exacerbates the sense of exclusion that students come with, because our culture has—we’re still an exclusive culture, not a sufficiently just culture—that the benefit of diversity in admissions was after in the first place. It would exacerbate students’ negative experience. And I don’t want this to be an argument against admitting for this reason or on this model, but just sort of a request for how to think about this. And maybe even in terms of brass tacks, do you think that there should be metrics for levels of support and institutional change that should follow this approach? And if so, what should those be? So I hope that makes sense, what I’m asking.
WARIKOO: Yeah. Thanks for your comment. And that’s a really important point. And you can’t—you can’t change admissions alone, right? And so when you—I think absolutely we need institutional supports, right? So, part of my—when people say, well, the—I’m sorry—Eric, when you talk about, well, people are worried about are these students going to be successful, or they’re looking at test scores and maybe they’re thinking are these students going to be successful. And, my response to that is also that if a student—if someone had demonstrated some kind of excellence in their grades—they’re the top of their class, or whatever it is, then we need to be an organization that can serve them, right?
And so we need to—the culture needs to shift, right? We need to have those supports, right? We need to make sure there are a quorum of peers who have similar lived experiences. We need—and I think higher education—some colleges have done better than others in these. I mean, for decades there have been kind of Africana centers. Increasingly there are centers for first-generation students. And so having an institutional space I think is one, academic supports for students who haven’t had the same educational opportunities, who may have been a good student but did not have the same rigorous curriculum as some of their peers, I think those are incredibly important and to do those in ways that are not stigmatizing I think is incredibly important.,
And so absolutely there have to be these simultaneous—if the student body is changing and we’re expanding access, we need to change the culture and change—and the institutions can do this and be very deliberate about how they do it. And because you’re right. And I think the reality is that it will be a harder lift for students who haven’t had those educational experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be there, right, that we need to work hard just to meet their needs and prioritize those as well, so.
Q: I’m thinking more in terms of, you know, there is a heavy lift, maybe, but more in terms of students become very involved in diversity-oriented activities, right? And calls for social justice. Students come in with activism experience that’s just extraordinary, you know? But that is emotional labor. And it really is a drain, especially during the pandemic, which just multiplies everything. So that’s part of where I’m worried—not so much the academic lift, but—although those supports are absolutely important. But, they want more of the change for which they were admitted, to highlight that this is a very important value.
WARIKOO: Yeah. Yeah. And it shouldn’t be their job, right?
Q: Right, exactly. (Laughter.)
WARIKOO: They’re there to get an education like everybody else. And it shouldn’t be their job. And it’s unfortunate when it kind of falls in their lap. So I agree with you that this is a problem.
FASKIANOS: Let’s go next to John Murray.
Q: Greetings. Thank you for the presentation. I am director of international admissions at Hesston College. I’m also a member of our diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership team.
We are a very high-quality institution, but we would not be considered in an elite. (Laughs.) We are in the unfortunate position of most years receiving fewer applications than we have spaces available. I’m curious what your research would say to us about how we might work at increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion when we’re not kind of selecting between individuals.
WARIKOO: OK. So I didn’t hear where you’re teaching and where your college is located.
Q: Hesston College is in central Kansas. We’re about thirty miles north of Wichita. So we’re also in a rural setting.
WARIKOO: Got it. Got it. So, I would sort of think about—so, two things. One is that I think, DEI is not just for people of color, right? So, what does DEI look like for White students as well, and what kinds of programing or classes or course content are—or, what do our syllabi look like? And are there—is diversity reflected on the syllabi? So I think there’s a lot that is important to think about in terms of DEI for White students as well as students of color. That would be my first thing to think about.
And then the second is, if there are populations that—in the state or the geographic area—who aren’t coming to your college, sometimes it takes some creative planning, like a partnership with a particular high school, or, where there’s—where students can take a class, and if they do well in that class then they get admitted, or they get a scholarship, or they can take a class for free when they’re in high school, or, you know, these kinds of kind of linkages that can bring attention to—make a student think, oh, I could go there, and I could do well there, and this is a place for people like me. I think that’s what students need to—we need to find ways for them to think and feel in order for them to see a particular college as a viable option.
And I think the other thing is just once you start then hopefully it sort of snowballs, right? Because then there’s a quorum of people, and then they—and then there’s a network, and then it doesn’t feel as exclusive of a place, and students start to sort of see a place differently as well. So I think you’re moving in the right direction. And, the college in Miami, I would say the same thing, right? Once you get that momentum it can be very positive.
FASKIANOS: OK. I’m going to go next to Jonathan Aronson, who also wrote his question. But, Jonathan, please do ask it.
Q: I’m coming from a different age. But I will just read my question: My concern is with mental health and anxiety in the students once they get here. Elite schools can accept a class of nothing but valedictorians. But 25 percent of them, by the math, are going to be in the bottom quarter of the class. Fifty years ago a then-dean of admissions at Harvard said, well, we deal—you know, this is before all of the equity, all of the diversity. He said, you know, we accept, what he called, “the happy bottom quarter.” Twenty-five percent of the class was taken on non-academic grounds. And that could be dancers and football players. But he said—we wouldn’t do it that way today, but how do admissions people deal with the whole problem of mental health in—when thinking about admissions of the class as a whole?
WARIKOO: So, it’s interesting. I mean, I think mental health is a really important issue. I don’t—I don’t know if kind of—there’s not a lot of emphasis on ranking within a college, like once students arrive. Especially on elite colleges, there seems to be a considerable grade inflation. And so I think no one—I mean, students—I think students who aren’t academically prepared may struggle, but for the most part I think that’s become less—I don’t know that that’s the driver of some of the increasing concerns about mental health for college-age students. I think there are other sort of drivers of that, like, social media—obviously, the pandemic is probably number one right now.
Even prior to the pandemic, social media, increasing—you know, I think there’s that great book by William Deresiewicz—I’m blanking on the title—but it’s about this sort of lack of—there’s so much focus on achievement and meeting certain—kind of jumping through particular hoops put in front of us, and that sometimes young people can be—get really good at that, doing what they’re told to do, and then when, you know, stop to ask, what do I really want, or what am I really interested in, or who do I want to be? That becomes even harder. Excellent Sheep is the name of that book. That becomes even harder.
And I think those are some of the things that I think are driving some of the mental health issues. And I think they’re very real, particularly in this pandemic. And so—but I think that that is not unique to elite colleges. I mean, what drives kind of mental health issues may be slightly different for different young people. But we really see that certainly at the high school level as well across the board, across lines of race and class.
FASKIANOS: Great. I don’t know, Beverly, you wrote a comment. I don’t know if you wanted to surface that yourself, Beverly Lindsay?
Q: It was just a comment about—that the gentleman made about mental health. And having been a dean at two different types of universities, we can’t really consider a lot of individual-type mental health unless it’s been in the public sphere. However, once the student enters, there is a considerable amount of resources for students to deal with mental health. And I am in the University of California system now. And I know we’re very, very concerned. But I taught a unit, for example, after the very sad situation at VPI, Virginia Polytech, over a decade ago. And unfortunately, that student had mental health issues, but we were not able—not “we”—the university was not able to have access to that. So there are two types of kinds of dimensions to the mental health issues.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Beverly.
Let’s go to Jennifer Brinkerhoff.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for a very interesting conversation.
I wanted to go back to the comment that was made earlier from the gentleman from Emory in Georgia about backlash. Because a lot of the DEI programming is significantly hampered by what I would call lawsuit harassment, right? I mean, we know that there are political constituencies out there who really want to fight this. And it makes it extremely difficult for universities to advance these agendas when they know that the cost of lawsuits, even when they’re right—when they’re doing the right thing and they’re doing something that is legal—but the cost of lawsuits becomes prohibitive. So I wondered if you encountered that or you addressed that at all in your research, and what advice you would have related to that. Thanks.
WARIKOO: Yeah. I think this is very real. I feel like it’s kind of grown exponentially in the last few years. (Laughs.) So it’s not in my research. But—and it’s K-12 education, as we see with this sort of supposed anti-CRT—critical race theory—stuff. My only response to that is I don’t know what the solution is besides just keep doing what we’re doing. Because you can’t back down in the face of these impending lawsuits because I feel like—I feel like the right is so organized in their attacks on anything related—any acknowledgment of racial inequality in American society that, OK, if we don’t talk about DEI, then there’s talk about admissions.
If we don’t talk admissions—if we look at the K-12 level, there’s this new attack on selective high schools, where most recently a judge—there was a lawsuit towards a selective high school in Virginia that went from exam-based admissions to holistic admissions. They’re not talking about race. And there was still a lawsuit, right? (Laughs.) So I think you can sort of back off and you’re still going to get sued. So I think the solution can’t be to back off because we don’t want to be paralyzed. And, I mean, I think it’s very real. I mean, some of the research on affirmative action shows that there seems to be a sort of backing away from affirmative action because of these fears of lawsuits. Not at the very elite places, but the kind of second-tier kinds of colleges. So we have seen that.
But, again, I’m not sure—obviously colleges have to protect themselves and are going to be thinking strategically about their finances, the likelihood of being sued. But I don’t think—I’m not sure what to do about that threat besides saying, I don’t think it’s a reason to not do this work. You’ll get attacked anyway.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. (Laughs.) Natasha, can you talk a little bit more about college admissions lotteries, and how that methodology is affecting DEI?
WARIKOO: Yeah. Well, no one’s doing a lottery, but I have written a little bit about it. So, one of the things that I—as I’ve been talking, I’ve been saying we have to stop thinking of this as an individual certification of merit, is that part of the way to do that is to change the meaning of selection. It’s funny, I’ll tell you a story, my husband was just on jury duty for the first time yesterday, because he’s a naturalized citizen.
So he came home and said, “You know, I didn’t really want to be put on this trial because it would mean—they said it was going to be, like, a long trial. But I—you know, but I answered honestly.” And then he got interviewed by the judge and these two lawyers. And then he said, “When they said, OK, you’re dismissed at the end I felt a sense of disappointment. And he was, like, because it felt like I was—I didn’t win, right?” He was like, “But I didn’t want to be on this. I never wanted to be—I mean, obviously if you’re selected, you’re selected. You don’t have a choice.”
But I think these systems—and the reason I tell you that story is that these systems of selection kind of do a number on us, right? It’s, like, we get so caught up in them. And I think what a lottery would do is say, you know what? It’s random. (Laughs.) Like, because the reality is it’s kind of random, you know? Did you grow up in a family that has the resources to pay for you to go to private music lessons, and now, this college needs an oboist because the oboist is graduating? Or did you get to sign up for—did your parents pay for you to sign up—in my latest research in a high school, kids are—they have, like, a private pitching coach. And so now you get recruited to be the pitcher on the baseball team.
And so it’s—that’s kind of random, you know? And the reality is that—but we act as if this is, like, a selection. So, to me, a lottery—we could say: Let’s put all the potential people, all the names in a hat, and let’s just have a lottery. And, we can think about, like, do we want to have—and then make clear, like, we want to have a quorum of full fee-paying students. And that doesn’t feel very good. But that’s kind of what we’re doing, so let’s call a spade a spade, you know? People who, athletes or whatever it is that that college is sort of looking at. Intended majors.
I think that—and we can think about diversity holistic—I think we can’t have kind of set metrics like, you get extra points or anything like that for being underrepresented, but we can think about it holistically, and being put into this lottery. And it would acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of amazing young people in this country who could thrive at most of these selective colleges. And I think it would change the meaning in a way that I think is very productive for society. So that’s sort of why I think that a lottery is a very promising idea.
FASKIANOS: Great. I don’t know if anybody has other questions or comments, but I will ask one more. In your research you found that White students and students of color perceive the benefits of diversity differently. What lessons can we learn from this, or have you learned, and how do you think you shift this—the perception differences?
WARIKOO: Yeah. I think one of the problems of the way that we talk about affirmative action and diversity only as a sort of, everybody benefits, everybody wins, is that it kind of leads to these expectations on the part of White students of their peers of color, right? Well, if diversity is all about improving my own educational experience, and I can see how I have benefited from those diverse voices in the classroom, then why—like then—and some of them would get annoyed when they saw, like, a table of Black students in the cafeteria.
And of course, they didn’t notice all those other tables of White students in the cafeteria, but they would say, well, if they’re here to enlighten me, then they should be kind of integrating into these White spaces. And of course, that student wouldn’t then go and sit at that table of Black students, but they’re expecting the Black students to integrate into these predominantly White spaces. And so I think there are all these unfair expectations on the underrepresented students of color. And of course, they’re all assumed to have benefitted from affirmative action, and we know that’s not the case.
And so I think there’s also this sort of assumption that they should always win, right? So I had a student admitted to Harvard say, well, if I hadn’t gotten into Harvard, I would have felt that I experienced racial discrimination, right, if, you know, the student of color at my high school had gotten in and I hadn’t. And so there is this belief that they should always be winners. And even with affirmative action, it’s just there to benefit themselves.
And I think we need to get away from that and really focus in on racial equity and, again, the history of racial exclusion in this country. And the way that even these institutions themselves have benefitted from—again, from slave labor, from the slave trade, from building their endowments at a time of racial segregation, at a time where there were very few, if any, students of color on their campuses. And then, legacy benefits that sort of continue that sort of intergenerational racial exclusion.
FASKIANOS: Great. And Beverly Lindsay has suggested Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book, Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria. Just want to share that resource. We are at the end of time, if you want to just make any final remarks before we close.
WARIKOO: Yeah. I mean, I guess I’ll just say that I think it’s important to pay attention to admissions, but I also have started to think much more broadly about DEI and higher education. And I think we need to also look well-beyond these, sort of, selective colleges. Most colleges in the United States are not selective, right? And, you know, we’ve heard from folks from of those colleges. And, we need to—when we look at the endowment per pupil at some of these selective colleges, compared to—and what they’re doing for social mobility compared to, I’m sure, like the college in Miami, community colleges, open access state colleges. I think we just need a lot more supports for those colleges that are engines of social mobility. And, again, if we think about the mission of higher education and how we, as Americans, see how we want to—sort of, what kind of society we want to be, I think it’s incredibly important to look also beyond admissions. So I’ll leave it at that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Thank you, Natasha Warikoo. We appreciate it. We look forward to reading your forthcoming book. And to everybody taking the time to participate and for your great questions and comments. Again, this is a forum to exchange ideas and best practices. So we loved hearing your comments as well.
So our next higher education webinar will be on Tuesday, April 19, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time with Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University. We’ll talk about the role of HBCUs in the United States. So please look out for that invitation. And in the meantime, I encourage you to follow us at @CFR_academic, visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for more resources. I look forward to communing again. And thank you, Natasha.
WARIKOO: Thanks for having me.
March 2, 2022
Academic and Higher Education Webinars