College Admissions: Foul & Fair

by W.D. Ehrhart

I find myself fascinated by the current debate over the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College overturning a previous 2003 case and effectively gutting affirmative action in college admissions based on racial criteria.

I recently retired from high school teaching, and I watched a lot of kids go through the college admissions ordeal. I had students who scored poorly on SATs and ACTs, but who were excellent students I was never reluctant to write college recommendations for because they were smart, savvy, hard-working, and well-grounded.

And I had kids with superlative standardized test scores who were less-than-ideal students for all sorts of reasons ranging from laziness to arrogance to flawed characters, some of whom even had near-perfect Grade Point Averages (GPA) as well, who received admission to elite schools they had not earned and did not deserve.

According to Wilfred Reilly of the National Review, racial preferences resulted in Black and Hispanic teens who were “200 SAT points behind the ability curve” being admitted to “hyper-competitive” institutions of higher learning, a policy that was unfair to Asian and white applicants, but also harmful to Blacks and Hispanics who “weren’t set up to succeed.”

That business about SAT scores really strikes a chord with me. I went to college so long ago that “affirmative action” wasn’t even a concept. The idea didn’t even exist. But it turns out that I was, in my own way, my college alma mater’s attempt at diversity among the student body. It was not race-based, but I was certainly a minority of a sort. I was, in essence, a kind of affirmative action.

Had I applied to Swarthmore College as a high school graduate, my application would never have made it out of the “slush pile.” My SAT scores were a combined total of 1218, easily 200 points below the median score for accepted applicants. Indeed, more like 300-plus below that average.

My GPA was a low A-minus, not bad, but not Swarthmore standards. I had not been captain of the debate team, or climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro at the age of 12, or done much of anything else to distinguish myself. But that was in 1966.

Instead of going to college, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps for three years. On the recommendation of a World War II navy veteran I met bodysurfing in Ocean City, New Jersey, after 13 months in Vietnam but still with a year to go in the Corps, I applied to Swarthmore and was accepted. I began there in the fall of 1969.

I became lifelong friends with the man who was Dean of Admissions during my four years at Swarthmore, so I know for a fact that I was accepted because the admissions committee was intrigued by the application from an active duty Marine sergeant who could write the English language and put the periods where they belonged. It certainly wasn’t my test scores that got their attention.

I’m told there was one other Vietnam War veteran at Swarthmore while I was there, but I never knew him. I think he may have been married and lived off-campus. Be that as it may, I was certainly a “minority” at Quaker, very liberal, visibly antiwar Swarthmore College.

Four years later, I graduated with a 3.7 GPA on a 4.0 base. According to my SAT scores, I was well “behind the ability curve” of my classmates, yet I did just fine academically. But I must surely have taken a spot that otherwise might have been used by some kid with 1583 SATs and a perfect straight-A GPA. Surely my admission was “unfair to the Asian or white” applicant who appeared on paper to be far more qualified for admission than I was, and who would have been accepted if I had not been.

But my experience then, and my experience after years of teaching, has left me with very little faith in standardized test scores or paper qualifications for college admission. Those artificial standards are exceedingly poor indicators of success in college, let alone success later in life.

Let me tell you a story. African American students were a distinct minority on the Swarthmore campus. At one point during my second year, all the Black students—maybe 40 or 50 of them—would gather each lunchtime on the patio outside the dining hall, walk in together, go through the food line and sit together, wait until everyone had finished, then stand up and leave together. It was kind of intimidating.

I had gotten to know a young Black woman who was in one of my classes, and one day I asked her what that lunchtime stuff was all about. “I live in an integrated dorm,” she replied, “where I’m a minority. I sit in integrated classes where I’m a minority. I play on an integrated field hockey team where I’m a minority. I sing in an integrated chorus where I’m a minority. Every now and then, it’s fun not to be a minority.”

I have never forgotten that lesson. I have had many occasions to relate it to students of mine, especially white kids who resent the Black kids all sitting together in the cafeteria. And it is a lesson I never would have gotten to learn if I had not been exposed to students very different from me.

There is simply no way to measure the value of being exposed to people different from ourselves: racially different, economically different, religiously different, politically different. Race should not be the single determinant of college admission. But it should be one determinant. This Supreme Court decision is a disservice to college students everywhere. It is a disservice to the nation.

Indeed, one might make the argument that the current Supreme Court is a disservice to the nation. But I’ll leave that for another time.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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