Redlining in Reverse

Higher education has been infiltrated—and hijacked—by race-obsessed progressives who, in the name of “diversity” and “inclusion,” seek to propagate an ideology of identity politics in order to foster group-based grievances against a culture they condemn as racist, sexist, patriarchal, ethnocentric, heteronormative, classist, and xenophobic (among numerous other perceived failings). Heather Mac Donald’s bracing book The Diversity Delusion (2018) exposed the agenda of leftist academic bureaucrats who in recent decades have—with great success—transformed the nation’s colleges and universities into indoctrination centers for their anti-Western canon.

Ideological balance on college faculties, campus free speech, due process for students accused of sexual misconduct, robust classroom debate on “controversial” topics, tolerance for competing viewpoints, and even the ultimate goal of higher education—pursuit of knowledge itself (if it makes coddled students feel “triggered” or “unsafe”)—have all been sacrificed on the altar of social justice, diversity, and political correctness. Since this takeover of college campuses began in earnest during the 1970s, the only significant resistance has come from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a series of muddled decisions—beginning with Bakke in 1978, continuing with Grutter (2003) and most recently Fisher (2016)—has prohibited public universities from engaging in explicit racial preferences—quota-based affirmative action.

Unfortunately, however, the Justices have deferred to the “expertise” of university administrators, allowing admissions officers to consider race (among other factors) for the purpose of realizing the presumed educational benefits of a “diverse” student body. Applicants’ race is still a significant factor in the admissions process at most schools, but colleges are careful to avoid leaving a paper trail documenting their rigid numerical goals. As a practical matter, at many selective schools less-qualified blacks are routinely admitted over white and Asian candidates with much better grades and test scores in order to meet demographic targets. Sly admissions officers use “holistic” methodologies—giving extra weight to certain applicants’ “special circumstances” and “life experiences”—to circumvent the ban on racial preferences. The transparent objective is artificially to boost the percentage of under-represented groups (such as African-Americans) enrolled, regardless of their qualifications.

At Harvard and other schools, Asian applicants are challenging such sub rosa techniques as de facto race discrimination, and some states (including California and Michigan) have banned state-funded schools from discriminating in admissions due to race. Undaunted, the diversity fraud continues apace, with enormous disparities in the test scores of admitted candidates based on their race. Asians, who would be over-represented in a purely meritocratic admissions process, are hurt most by the reverse discrimination, although the supposed beneficiaries—less-qualified minorities, especially blacks—are also harmed as a result of the “mismatch effect” documented by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in their 2012 book, Mismatch. Increasingly, “diversity” in admissions is widely viewed as a barely-concealed artifice for race discrimination.

Thus, when the College Board (which administers the widely-used SAT test) recently unveiled its new “adversity score” to be assigned to all SAT-takers based on the socio-economic characteristics of the students’ schools and neighborhoods, observers were understandably skeptical. It didn’t help that David Coleman, the College Board’s CEO, was an architect of Common Core, the controversial system of K-12 curriculum content mandates that the Obama administration promoted nationwide. In addition to assigning an objective SAT score based on the students’ performance on the test, the College Board will give an additional, secret rating—disclosed to colleges during the application process but not to the students themselves. The rating takes into account the crime rate, poverty levels, and other factors deemed to represent the degree of privilege or “adversity” in the students’ respective communities, although the College Board declines to reveal what data it uses and how it weighs the factors. According to news reports, “Other elements of the adversity index include housing values, family median income, whether a student is a child of a single parent, or speaks English as a second language.”

However the data is derived or weighed, lumping people together based on their zip code resembles nothing so much as the now-banned practice of banks and other financial institutions which rejected loan applicants based solely on where they lived. It was called “redlining,” and civil rights advocates condemned it as discrimination. Consumers applying for credit cards, mortgages, and other types of loans deserve to be judged on their individual merits, not based on their address or the general characteristics of their school, community, or neighbors. No one should be prejudiced by the actual or perceived faults of another—or receive credit for someone else’s actions. Applying to college is no different.

College admissions should be based on merit: students’ intellectual ability and aptitude for achievement. These qualities are not always accurately reflected in applicants’ grades, class rank, and test scores. Sometimes other factors warrant consideration. Human beings are unique, not fungible, regardless of where they live or attend school. If college admissions officers wish to look beyond objective metrics (such as SAT scores) to assess a candidate’s academic potential, they can and should consider the personal characteristics of applicants: extra-curricular activities, demonstrated leadership, special talents or athletic ability, evidence of overcoming deprivation or family hardship through hard work and determination, and so forth. (A candidate’s race or ethnicity should never be considered.)

Personal characteristics are highly individual in nature. No credible “adversity score” can be calculated based on the collective or aggregate characteristics of a particular neighborhood or high school. Such macro data-gathering is both crude and superficial. Generalizing in this manner—imputing group traits to an individual—is the essence of stereotyping, like denigrating people who live “on the wrong side of the tracks.” While purporting to be “scientific,” the adversity score is by definition imprecise—a statistical meat ax instead of a personalized scalpel. For example, it is unlikely that the College Board’s proprietary algorithms would have captured the pathos of J.D. Vance’s early life—as depicted in his remarkable memoir Hillbilly Elegy (2016)—based only on his home town of Middletown, Ohio, or the public high school he attended there. Yet identifying the J.D. Vances of the world—diamonds in the rough—should be the goal of “holistic” review by college admissions officers, rather than simply meeting racial quotas.

Not all families who live in primarily lower or lower-middle class neighborhoods are poor (or “disadvantaged”), just as not all families who live in more affluent areas are wealthy (or “privileged”). Students whose parents chose to send their children to private school should not be at a categorical disadvantage versus those who attended the local public school. Within any population—be it a high school student body or a geographic area—there will be a distribution of disparate data points which vary around the mean. This is why such populations are graphically depicted by a bell curve rather than a flat line. As one critic recognized, “Measuring neighborhood adversity is not the same as assessing an individual student’s resilience or grit.” The notion that “privilege” or “adversity” can be determined by assuming uniformity among all students in a particular school or neighborhood, and then reduced to a numerical score, is simply absurd.

If colleges want to take applicants’ “adversity” into account, the only way to do so fairly and accurately is to consider their life experience on an individual basis—by listening to their personal stories. The College Board’s latest innovation is, at best, a redistributionist effort to level the socio-economic playing field by giving bonus points to applicants facing presumed hardship and subtracting points for presumed privilege. This is not a proper role for college admissions officers. Life is not a game of golf, and assigning arbitrary “handicaps” in what should be a meritocratic process reeks of unfairness. The Wall Street Journal correctly identified the real motive for the College Board’s subterfuge, which is even worse than egalitarian social engineering: “Colleges want to get out in front of a possible legal ban on race-based preferences.” Many of the adversity score’s variables correlate with minority status, and cynics understandably assume that the goal is to allow colleges to continue to grant racial preferences surreptitiously—quotas by stealth.

With “holistic” admissions—corrupted by diversity zealots into a pretext for racial and ethnic preferences—increasingly being challenged as illegal discrimination, and the SAT itself recently exposed as vulnerable to bribery and cheating, it is no wonder that the SJWs running higher education have resorted to new tricks. The College Board’s “adversity score” is obviously designed to serve as a proxy for race and to enable colleges to grant racial preferences (and even to achieve racial quotas) without—wink, wink—looking at the applicants’ race. The seemingly objective “adversity score” provides a patina of neutrality to race-obsessed university admissions officers.

Anthony Carnevale, a former College Board employee now working for Georgetown University, admitted as much: “The purpose is to get to race without using race.” The “adversity score” is, therefore, a scam—a hoax. Calling the score a “backdoor to racial quotas in college admissions,” Heather Mac Donald charged in City Journal that

Advocates of this change claim that it is not about race. That is a fiction . . . . Colleges pay lip service to socioeconomic diversity, but that concept is inevitably a surrogate for race . . . . The only guaranteed beneficiaries of this new scheme are the campus diversity bureaucrats. They have been given another assurance of academically handicapped students who can be leveraged into grievance, more diversity sinecures, and lowered academic standards.

Despite the obvious flaws in the adversity score, 50 colleges reportedly used it last year as part of a beta test. Incredibly, the Wall Street Journal states that “The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.” University governing boards, alumni, parents of college applicants, legislators (in the case of state-funded schools), and perhaps even the U.S. Department of Education, should resist this outrageous end-run around the ban on racial preferences in admissions.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 23, 2019 at 08:39:36 am

I think you can't say "merit" because of the obvious implication that those who are not academically inclined are without merit. I know it's the word that fits, relating to standards and quality and how education has traditionally tagged children who are readily successful at the school thing.

I just read a Forbes article about why college has to be for everyone by someone who coaches people in how to think correctly to pass achievement tests and college admissions essays. He's worried about exclusion from success and fortune for those who don't succeed in going to college and earning a degree. Nevermind the numbers who are not employable after years of college. Those who succeed in finding highly remunerative employment are his focus. A degree can mean the big bucks, which of course is why the adversity score counts so much. Compensation for lack of merit is the whole point.

So, I agree with your points made above, but finding a different way of framing the argument is going to be necessary for it to persuade those for whom our idea of merit seems vastly unfair. The opposition idea is roughly equivalent to the argument for buying lottery tickets. If you havent got the ticket, you're not in the game. Just get the ticket.

Counter that.

read full comment
Image of Kate Pitrone
Kate Pitrone
on May 23, 2019 at 08:57:11 am

"Counter that."

Well, a lottery ticket only costs two bucks (I think?). If i don;t win, I am only out a half of a cup of coffee.

If I lose the "University" sweepstakes, I am out hundreds of thousands of dollars. Moreover, I have lost opportunity costs. I could have pursued a career as an electrician (currently hiring many apprentices), a carpenter, etc where after a three year apprenticeship, I would be making six figures. Moreover, for the slightly ambitious, one could start one's own business - quite lucrative, in fact - and charge all those University types hundreds of dollars per hour for performing relatively simple tasks that these geniuses are incapable of performing.

read full comment
Image of Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 23, 2019 at 11:27:49 am

I do agree. "Counter that" is a friendly challenge to make an argument against this one that anyone might accept.


That one is popular because it's about equality. You and I and Mr. Pulliam are saying that all people are not the same. I think that's evidently true. But for people who think a college education is the ultimate ticket to success, to equality, everyone must be the same for that to be true.

What's funny, maybe, is that I don't think intelligence is the main issue in people going to college or not. We all must know people who are perfectly brilliant at what they do, mechanics, plumbers, clerks, mothers, people with any job at all. Not inclined to academics, perhaps not even very literate, but brilliant despite that. Maybe you are getting at that, Gutenberg?

But that's not meritorious right now. So I'm hoping that Mr. Pulliam or somebody can figure out how to change modern discourse on the subject.

I know, it's a lot to ask.

read full comment
Image of Kate Pitrone
Kate Pitrone
on May 23, 2019 at 14:38:28 pm


I was "getting at that"

One of the brightest (not most literate or erudite) fellows I ever met was a journeyman electrician. Dale could reason through ANYthing.

I think one of the things that folks overlook is the fact that *learning* need not be confined to the halls of academia; rather, it is to be found in any number of (both) Great and good books and a willingness to observe the world with the fascination of a child.

I take the New Testament admonition to " be like a child" to mean that one need be open and filled with "wonder" at the world AS IT IS not as one wishes it to be.

One need not undergo the rigors, such as they now purport to be / are of university, indeed one may very well be better able to attain such an epistemological state if one does not avail oneself of that option.

Be simple, be not proud and most of all ASK QUESTIONS.

I think that is all that is needed.

Then again, as my name implies, both books and brew are also essential. Ha!

read full comment
Image of Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on May 23, 2019 at 20:12:10 pm

The irony of all this nonsense is that there's only ONE race, the human race. RaceS plural is merely a phony, evil evolutionist fantasy of deranged Darwin who thought some apes might be more intelligent than some Negroes. How enlightened to think that way! NOT! But evolutionism has no legitimate defense against that genuine charge. The Christian view of America's Founders, that all men (for the majority illiterate today, that includes women) are made in God's image, the image of their Creator is why from the beginning of the USA the battle to end slavery was on, and succeeded some "fourscore and seven years" later, no matter the dishonest critics of the Founders' slavery they held as they sought to end it.

read full comment
Image of Russ
on May 23, 2019 at 22:39:31 pm

I would like to point out that the Common Core Curriculum was not a product of the Obama Administration but the brain child of the Republican Governor’s and an attempt to bring academic excellence and rigor to the American public school system which is failing students and this country miserably.

read full comment
Image of Mary Burke
Mary Burke
on May 24, 2019 at 10:10:30 am

I'm wondering out loud...

Why not Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors?

Let's turn the Left's own Methods on their Heads!

Use the same Statistical Methods to show that there is Bias against Conservative Professors!

For the sake of Higher Education and the Republic!

Please! Someone start suing and using Affirmative Action against them!!!

Then again, I'm not a lawyer, I'm a Idea Guy, Inventor, Trend Watcher, etc...

read full comment
Image of Scott Hoffman
Scott Hoffman
on May 24, 2019 at 11:43:16 am

As far as I can tell the impetus to create the adversity score was entirely internal to the College Board, in response to criticism that the SAT was as much a measure of socioeconomic class as of achievement. It is not at all clear that the SAT indicates merit or achievement of anything more than the ability to get a certain score on the SAT; it is clear that it is easier to get a high score if you come from a privileged group that shares experiences, assumptions and cultural touchstones with the people who created the test. My own institution is planning to make the test optional for most applicants -- in part because the things we value most in our students--independence, originality, the impulse to create-- aren't even acknowledged to exist by the SAT.

read full comment
Image of Alexander Gourlay
Alexander Gourlay
on May 24, 2019 at 12:55:56 pm

"College Board declines to reveal what data it uses and how it weighs the factors"

99% chance they're using ESRI.

read full comment
Image of Chris in Iowa
Chris in Iowa
on May 25, 2019 at 08:25:58 am

I find it ironic that amid the a cheating/ admissions fraud scandal the College Board is working to make fraud easier. Faking a child's athletic resume is harder and generally implicates the child if the dishonesty is caught, but an "adversity score" kept secret from the student is the perfect way for a rich parent to put their thumb on the scale with complete deniability.

I imagine there will be a cottage black-market industry in both coaching parents to exploit the data collection process and also committing outright fraud inside the opaque process.

read full comment
Image of James B
James B
on May 25, 2019 at 18:50:39 pm

What's important is not the scale of measurement your using, but that

-you're telling everyone what the measure is ahead of time, so they can choose to try to prepare

-you're using the same measure for everyone

-you're requiring the same score for everyone for admission--not having different admissions requirements for different sexes, races, economic classes, personalities, etc.

read full comment
Image of Equalibrium
on May 27, 2019 at 13:27:29 pm

When no one can say what an SAT score means, and it is possible to raise the score substantially through expensive coaching or by taking the expensive test multiple times , without actually learning anything except how to game the test, how exactly would it make the system fairer to declare a given score the sole determinant of admissibility? Nobody knows how admissions offices will use adversity scores, or whether they will use them at all, so it is too early to declare it a proxy for race. If the adversity score is simply out there as a statistic and not silently factored into the SAT score, it seems paranoid to declare it tantamount to “redlining in reverse.” There is no reliable universal measure of merit in prospective students— admissions officers should pay attention to as many criteria as they can reasonably, fairly, and efficiently employ, and that could include a well-conceived adversity score.

read full comment
Image of Alexander Gourlay
Alexander Gourlay
on May 28, 2019 at 01:27:32 am

Why do you think people don't learn anything when they improve their SAT scores? The SAT tests reading, grammar (it's called "writing") and math through about Algebra 2. If a kid learns the proper use of commas, which English teachers aggressively avoid teaching these days (let alone diagramming sentences!) they can get a fast 50 points on the SAT Verbal. Did they learn something, yes they sure did! If you can't get through and understand the reading passage, no amount of test strategy is going to get you a high reading score.

I don't know what they teach at test prep services these days. I think it's just correcting your answers, encouraging practice, and explaining the right answer at a rate of $300 per hour. With Khan Academy that's no longer needed if the kid's a self starter. Everyone can "game" the test and know just that they need to improve on to get a better score.

read full comment
Image of artichoke
on May 30, 2019 at 01:04:48 am

[…] the same high school is presumed to be in the same “adversity” boat), attorney Mark Pulliam likens the CB’s method of calculating adversity to the “redlining” that banks used in the past to decide where not to […]

read full comment
Image of Commentary: Can Americans 'Handle the Truth' About Individual Achievement Differences? - Tennessee Star
Commentary: Can Americans 'Handle the Truth' About Individual Achievement Differences? - Tennessee Star
on May 30, 2019 at 01:05:13 am

[…] the same high school is presumed to be in the same “adversity” boat), attorney Mark Pulliam likens the CB’s method of calculating adversity to the “redlining” that banks used in the past to decide where not to […]

read full comment
Image of Commentary: Can Americans 'Handle the Truth' About Individual Achievement Differences? - Battleground State News
Commentary: Can Americans 'Handle the Truth' About Individual Achievement Differences? - Battleground State News

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.