Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fairness, Identity, and Merit

The Supreme Court agreed recently to revisit the question of using race as a consideration for college admissions. Now I'm not familiar with all the particulars involved. I know, in the past, such Affirmative Action measures involved quota systems that created separate pools for people of different ethnic groups. I'm not convinced that works out well.

I do, however, believe that many things, race included, should be considered in college admissions, hiring, and the formation of any group. This brings up all kinds of discussions around fairness and merit, but what interests me most, is how we make value judgments.

Sure, it can be shown that some groups have a more difficult time than others, based on race or economics or physical ability (deaf students, on average, get worse grades, no matter how smart they are). But I'm not sure many people who fall into those groups appreciated getting an advantage based on their inclusion in the group. Like everyone else, they'd prefer to be considered as individuals.

I'm not talking about giving preferential treatment to groups of people or even to individuals based on their membership in such a group. I'm saying that we should be free to consider all aspects of an applicants individual identity - not just the ones they can control.

As a society, we shy away from judging people by any measure over which they have no control, like race or gender. We've deemed it more "fair" this way. Certainly it provides a safeguard from our biases coming into play. There's value in this approach.

Still, I'm not sure it's the right one.

Let's look at athletics as an example. Athletes still need to meet qualifications for admission, no matter how good they are at badminton or fencing. The argument being that winning teams improves the atmosphere on campus and thus the learning environment. Many schools have also found that top athletes bring unique perspectives to academic study and have lots to contribute in the way of work ethic, determination, and discipline.

True, some schools do lessen requirements for admission for athletes, but for the most part, schools hold athletes to the same entrance requirements as everyone else. They simply consider athletic ability as part of the individual consideration of each student. If the kid can do the work and the coach wants them, why not let them in?

There's no real difference in including race or gender as part of these consideration once a pool of capable applicants has been achieved. Many schools have more applicants than they do positions available in the freshman class. Once they've figured out which students can handle the rigors of the school's brand of academic, they must do the difficult task of choosing between qualified and capable candidates.

At some point, a college has to choose from a pool of applicants whose academic records are all pretty much identical. There are a lot of ways to make decisions - from a straight merit-based approach (a 1230 SAT beats a 1220) to extra curricular activities, family connections to the school, even wealth. Even a good essay, something that shows unique life experience, will often tip the balance. This is precisely why some parents pay big bucks for an application consultant to get everything just right.

In the end, a school or an employer is looking for the best applicant to add to the overall quality of the school or organization. That doesn't always mean the best person as judged by objective criteria. Sports teams prove time and again that winning takes more than just compiling the best talent.

So, yes, it'es easier for women to get into math and engineering schools. Less women apply and in the interest of diversity, a higher percentage get in. The school has determined that a better mix of gender is important to the learning environment. A lot of small liberal arts schools have a tough time attracting male students. It's not unheard of for a college to add a football program just to boost the number of male applicants in the pool and improve ratios.

Why would a college not want to have a mix of ethnic, cultural, physical, and economic groups on campus. We learn more if we're in class with many different perspectives. It improves creativity, analytical ability, and cultural awareness. Spending time with people who view time differently than I was taught in my white, middle-class, world has vastly expanded my view of the world. Learning with people who have experienced the negative effects of the capitalism and Christianity that have so benefited me, has helped me to be more critical of the world around me, ask better questions, and be more creative.

I'm not saying that every school or employer should have to consider factors over which applicants have no control. I don't there's a right way and wrong way to do things. I do think one is better than another and that every decision-maker should have the ability to make that determination for themselves and their institution, even if they disagree with me (or it costs me a job).

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