How to choose ‘best’ stu­dents?

Shanghai Daily - - OPINION - Peter Singer FOR­EIGN VIEWS

IN dif­fer­ent coun­tries and for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, uni­ver­sity ad­mis­sions poli­cies are un­der at­tack. In a Bos­ton court­room on Oc­to­ber 15, a judge will be­gin hear­ing a law­suit claim­ing that Har­vard’s ad­mis­sion process dis­crim­i­nates against Asian-Amer­i­cans. In the United King­dom, Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment David Lammy de­scribed Ox­ford and Cam­bridge as “fief­doms of en­trenched priv­i­lege” be­cause of the many stu­dents they ad­mit from pri­vate schools. In Ja­pan, Tokyo Med­i­cal Uni­ver­sity has apol­o­gized for ma­nip­u­lat­ing fe­male ap­pli­cants’ en­trance exam scores in or­der to cap the pro­por­tion of women ad­mit­ted at 30 per­cent.

Let’s look at each of these con­tro­ver­sies in turn. It has long been ap­par­ent that the pro­por­tion of Asian-Amer­i­cans ad­mit­ted to Amer­ica’s top pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties is sig­nif­i­cantly lower than that ad­mit­ted by top pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, where con­sid­er­a­tion of race is pro­hib­ited.

In 2013, for ex­am­ple, Asian-Amer­i­can en­roll­ment was 14-18 per­cent at Har­vard, Yale, Prince­ton, Brown, Cor­nell, and Columbia. At the two lead­ing cam­puses of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les and Berke­ley, the range was 32-35 per­cent. Nor can the dis­crep­ancy be fully ex­plained by Cal­i­for­nia’s de­mo­graph­ics, be­cause at Stan­ford, Cal­i­for­nia’s top pri­vate uni­ver­sity, the Asian-Amer­i­can en­rol­ment is, at 23 per­cent, still much lower than at Cal­i­for­nia’s lead­ing state in­sti­tu­tions. (By con­trast, of those en­rolled at the pri­vate Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, 43 per­cent were Asian-Amer­i­can.)

Al­though Har­vard, Stan­ford, Yale, Prince­ton, Brown, Cor­nell and Columbia are pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, each re­ceives mil­lions of dol­lars in pub­lic funds, which brings with it re­quire­ments that pro­hibit “un­law­ful” racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Stu­dents for Fair Ad­mis­sions, the or­ga­ni­za­tion su­ing Har­vard, has sub­mit­ted to the court a doc­u­ment show­ing that a re­view from Har­vard’s own Of­fice of In­sti­tu­tional Re­search found that in 2013 Asian-Amer­i­cans were less likely to be ad­mit­ted than whites who per­formed com­pa­ra­bly well on all mea­sures ex­cept a sub­jec­tive “per­sonal” rat­ing. If ad­mis­sion had been based solely on aca­demic per­for­mance, Har­vard’s in­take would have been 43 per­cent AsianAmer­i­can. In­stead, it was 19 per­cent.

In Au­gust, the US De­part­ment of Jus­tice filed a “state­ment of in­ter­est” in the case ar­gu­ing that Har­vard has failed to show that it does not un­law­fully dis­crim­i­nate against Asian-Amer­i­cans. That may be mo­ti­vated by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­tack on af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion for AfricanAmer­i­can and His­panic stu­dents, but it would be pos­si­ble to ad­mit more stu­dents from those dis­ad­van­taged mi­nori­ties with­out mak­ing it harder for AsianAmer­i­cans to be ad­mit­ted than it is for white Amer­i­cans.

Ox­ford and Cam­bridge have long been crit­i­cized for ad­mit­ting a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of stu­dents from pri­vate schools like West­min­ster and Eton. Last year, Ox­ford ad­mit­ted more stu­dents from 12 pri­vate schools than it did from all 841 state com­pre­hen­sive schools. That is de­spite spend­ing £13.6 mil­lion (US$17.8 mil­lion) since 2009 on out­reach to dis­ad­van­taged schools, an ef­fort that led to 126 ex­tra dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents be­ing ad­mit­ted, at a cost for the out­reach alone of £108,000 per dis­ad­van­taged stu­dent.

So­cial mo­bil­ity

In sharply un­equal so­ci­eties, elite uni­ver­si­ties re­ceiv­ing gov­ern­ment funds can prop­erly be ex­pected to play a role in fos­ter­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity. They can do that with­out com­pro­mis­ing ed­u­ca­tional val­ues by tak­ing into ac­count, in se­lect­ing stu­dents, the ev­i­dence that stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged schools sur­pass their peers from bet­ter schools who were awarded the same scores in their pre-uni­ver­sity ex­ams. That means that the exam scores of stu­dents who go to the best schools should be dis­counted to what­ever ex­tent will achieve the most scholas­ti­cally able in­take.

How best to mea­sure scholas­tic abil­ity in dif­fer­ent con­texts can be dis­cov­ered by re­search­ing the aca­demic progress of stu­dents ad­mit­ted on the ba­sis of com­pet­ing meth­ods of as­sess­ment, such as exam scores, IQ tests, in­ter­views, and so on. To pro­mote still greater so­cial mo­bil­ity by ad­mit­ting stu­dents from dis­ad­van­taged schools who are not likely to do as well as other ap­pli­cants would com­pro­mise the uni­ver­sity’s ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards, and it is not ob­vi­ous that uni­ver­si­ties should go that far.

Tokyo Med­i­cal Uni­ver­sity’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of fe­male ap­pli­cants’ exam scores falls into a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory, be­cause it is such a bla­tant form of de­cep­tion.

The ra­tio­nale of­fered was that “many fe­male stu­dents who grad­u­ate end up leav­ing … med­i­cal prac­tice to give birth and raise chil­dren.” De­spite some recog­ni­tion of the need to re­form prac­tices in hos­pi­tals and other med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties to ac­com­mo­date the needs of women doc­tors, so far lit­tle has changed. Only 20 per­cent of Ja­pan’s doc­tors are women, a fig­ure that puts it at the bot­tom of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, and well be­low the OECD aver­age of 46 per­cent.

Gen­der bal­ance

Sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, many Amer­i­can col­leges are also dis­crim­i­nat­ing against women. Be­cause they re­ceive more ap­pli­ca­tions from well-qual­i­fied women than they do from sim­i­larly qual­i­fied men, they ad­mit less-qual­i­fied men to en­sure “gen­der bal­ance” on cam­pus. Is gen­der bal­ance so im­por­tant that it jus­ti­fies over­rid­ing the prin­ci­ple of al­lo­cat­ing ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties on the ba­sis of merit?

The most ob­vi­ous cri­te­rion for ad­mis­sion to a uni­ver­sity is scholas­tic abil­ity. Grounds for de­part­ing from that cri­te­rion, such as so­cial mo­bil­ity or the de­sire for a di­verse stu­dent com­mu­nity, should be ex­plic­itly stated and de­fended, and then ap­plied in a man­ner that is trans­par­ent and fair. Har­vard will need to show that its per­sonal rat­ing of ap­pli­cants passes this fair­ness test and is not a re-run of the de facto quo­tas that Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties be­gan us­ing in the 1920s to re­duce the num­ber of Jewish stu­dents they ad­mit­ted.

Ox­ford and Cam­bridge, on the other hand, are on firm ground if they are se­lect­ing ap­pli­cants with the high­est scholas­tic abil­ity by dis­count­ing the exam scores of stu­dents from pri­vate schools. And Ja­pan needs an open dis­cus­sion about how best to give women an equal op­por­tu­nity not only to be­come doc­tors, but also to con­tinue to prac­tice medicine and thereby use their med­i­cal train­ing to ben­e­fit those in need of health care.

Peter Singer is Pro­fes­sor of Bioethics at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and Lau­re­ate Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne. His books in­clude “An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion,” “Prac­ti­cal Ethics” and “The Most Good You Can Do.” Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate, 2018. www. project-syn­di­cate.org

Peter Singer

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