The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can universities have equality in admissions and excellence, too?

This question has driven debates since the 1960s — with uneven gains

The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., in 2020. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News)
7 min

The Supreme Court is considering how prestigious universities make admissions decisions. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, challenged both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University in their respective uses of race-conscious criteria in rating undergraduate applicants. The volatile cases seem to confirm that Americans agree that a college education is important — while disagreeing on who should be admitted and why.

The case resurrects an American dilemma first posed in 1961 by John Gardner, president of the Carnegie Foundation, when he asked, “Can we be equal and excellent, too?” The question was urgent because the United States had unprecedented resources for higher education that coincided with growth in the number and diversity of students who were considering their educational prospects.

In 1910, for example, 5 percent of American 18-year-olds pursued education beyond high school. A half-century later, the United States was poised to expand this to 50 percent. But without thoughtful policies, access alone would not resolve unequal access for students across categories of race and income.

As the number of students who applied to college jumped in the early 1960s, it sparked debates on how the college admissions process ought to work and who should be admitted. Civil rights initiatives and court decisions like the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling made exclusion by race illegal in public educational institutions, and the 1965 Higher Education Act expanded access to education for minority groups, especially African American students, by providing federal financial aid to make college more affordable.

But at the same time, statistical research armed college admissions officers with a confidence in rankings of students based on their grades, test scores and other demographic criteria such as geographic residence, type of secondary school, gender and family income. The databases allowed them to compare an applicant with other students nationwide.

One consequence was that a cohort of colleges became more selective. While most colleges had to work to enroll an adequate number of qualified students to fill their entering class each year, a small number of institutions, both private and public, gained the luxury of choice among a large pool of academically strong applicants. The admissions office at these selective colleges now had the analytic tools to create each year what deans hailed as “The Best Class Yet.”

According to historian Marcia Graham Synnott, the changing composition of the student body at academically prestigious colleges like Harvard, Yale and Princeton was a “half-opened door” for new constituencies. Proponents of “selective college” admissions argued that this selectivity allowed institutions to fulfill several purposes all at once, including using SAT scores to recruit promising young scientists and creating “balance in the college.”

Selective admissions could be used to promote racial and ethnic diversity, but it could also be used to give an edge to “legacy” applicants related to alumni and donors. Sociologists Christopher Jencks and David Riesman described the admissions process as “the partial triumph of meritocracy.” More recently, historian Evan Mandery argued selective admissions was “Poisoned Ivy” that tended to prioritize the pursuit of institutional prestige over concern for substantive societal change.

Several schools quickly began to find new ways to exclude people from their campuses, and while many colleges complied with new laws prohibiting racial exclusion in admissions, they did so in a minimal, cursory way. UNC Chapel Hill, for instance, desegregated its undergraduate college in 1960 but enrolled just 18 Black undergraduate students on a campus with total enrollment of over 12,000 in 1963. The University of Georgia’s racial desegregation in 1961 consisted of admitting two African American students. Numbers were just as bad in the North, as indicated by the University of Michigan, where Black student enrollment in 1970 was a mere 4.9 percent.

As admissions practices evolved, however, so too did efforts to hold colleges accountable. National databases on enrollments were used by federal agencies like the Education Department and the Justice Department, along with nonprofit groups such as the NAACP to document exclusion and discrimination by colleges. The numbers painted a stark picture: racial desegregation at state universities in the South fell short of achieving integration. Indeed, riots opposing admission of African American students at the University of Alabama and University of Mississippi received high-profile press coverage in the early 1960s.

Less noticed, however, was how academically prestigious private universities in the region — Duke, Vanderbilt, Emory, Tulane and Rice — had given low priority to recruiting African American students. According to historian Melissa Kean, African American students represented about 5 percent of the college enrollments nationwide in 1969, with most enrolled at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Without comprehensive statistical databases, such trends would have been difficult to track.

In the 1970s, an increasing number of college presidents and boards, including at flagship state universities, devoted more attention to racial diversity in considering applications for admission. This was challenged in the 1974 DeFunis v. Odegaard case by an applicant who had been denied admission to the University of Washington law school. Then, in 1978, Allan Bakke challenged his denial of admission to the medical school at the University of California at Davis, which led to a Supreme Court decision striking down racial quota systems and ushering in the practice of “holistic admissions” at colleges and universities.

These unsettled debates continued well into the 1990s, as California’s Proposition 209 prohibited affirmative action in public education admissions, while other state universities reasserted the importance of their continued commitment to diversity. For example, in 1999, John T. Casteen III, president of the University of Virginia, emphasized in his public State of the University address that Virginia remained committed to its 15-year policy of emphasis on equality in admissions recruitment, as distinguished from affirmative action quotas. Casteen noted that great universities acknowledged history — and in the case of Virginia, this included the exclusion associated with massive resistance and racial segregation into the 1960s. Keeping that history in mind to guide contemporary practices, the University of Virginia had achieved 10 percent Black student enrollment by 1990, including a graduation rate of 89 percent.

But not all institutions heeded Casteen’s call to critically review their own heritage and record in attempting to make higher education accessible and accountable. By 2021, Black students constituted less than 5 percent of undergraduates at UNC Chapel Hill, even as Black students constituted 15 percent of the 2020 K-12 public school enrollment in North Carolina.

The problem is that increasing educational opportunities have increased, not reduced, admissions disparities where admission is competitive. This has included a convergence of several dysfunctions in efforts to overcome disadvantages. The SAT, once hailed for its objective identification of talented students, has lost much credibility amid questions over the test’s validity and its capacity to estimate how a student will do academically once enrolled in college.

At the same time, decreases in funding for public school systems, especially in urban areas, have decreased the quality of education for poor students in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Students from educated, affluent families have gained disproportionate advantages from access to special programs, testing coaches and advanced instructional classes.

As the Supreme Court considers this issue again, one legacy it stands to learn from the early 1960s is that once “Great Expectations” for college admissions have over 60 years turned toward shortfalls and disappointment in achieving substantial diversity despite recruitment and holistic admissions practices. At the same time some academically prestigious colleges, including Harvard, Amherst, the University of Virginia, Pomona, the University of California and Brown, have demonstrated remarkable gains in diversity. Whether this momentum will be sustainable after the Supreme Court’s decision next summer is uncertain. To return to the 1961 question about college admissions, “Can we be equal and excellent, too?,” the answer today seems to be “not yet.”