On Thursday, the US Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ruled that race-based admissions policies in higher education violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and are thereby unconstitutional. American colleges and universities have pursued such policies since the 1960s, when America’s elites were first won over to “affirmative action” and later to its substitute “diversity.” Both iterations of the project promised to cultivate racial minorities—especially African Americans—who would be supportive of, rather than hostile toward, American capitalism and state power and thus politically valuable members of the elite. Unfortunately for our national leaders, elite enthusiasm for this project has repeatedly run afoul of the law. Students for Fair Admissions now presents to them a valuable opportunity for self-reflection. Has the multigenerational quest to build a “representative” ruling class strengthened the elite's claim to legitimacy? Or has the entire project of elite formation through elite higher education revealed itself as fundamentally misconceived?

Prior to the first Students for Fair Admission lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina in 2014, few Americans knew exactly how the sausage of American college admissions was made. But these cases made it possible for all to see how higher-ed bureaucrats manufacture a student “personal rating” as an all-purpose fudge factor to tilt the admissions scales, or how the “tip” is used to favor certain desirable student attributes from race to athletic ability to musical talent to legacy status. As with Upton Sinclair’s reporting on the intricate details of America’s meatpacking industry a century ago, many stomachs were turned in the process.

These once veiled practices are all in service of what is widely referred to within higher education as “creating a class”—hand-picking individual student applicants so that they as a cohort will become something greater than the sum of its parts. And what is this greater sum? The high court cites the defendants themselves: “training future leaders in the public and private sectors”; “producing new knowledge stemming from diverse outlooks.” Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the majority opinion, retorts that such goals are elusive and unmeasurable. He finds them “inescapably imponderable.”

“The goal of elite higher education is not simply to produce individual elites.”

Which is precisely the point. As Roberts observes, American colleges and universities actively evade being pinned down on their achievement of such goals. Ultimately, this is because these goals are euphemisms for the real task of race-based admissions. For half a century, the production of a racially diverse elite has been first and foremost a legitimation strategy. The goal of elite higher education is not simply to produce individual elites. It is to produce a ruling class, legitimate in the eyes of both the masses and of the class itself.

This is no mean feat in the United States for at least two reasons. The first is ideological. According to the national mythos, the country is a democracy and thus has no ruling class. To have a ruling elite that “looks like America” (as the newly elected President Bill Clinton pledged his Cabinet would do) is an attempt to overcome this contradiction. If America could have female law partners, black management consultants, and Hispanic investment bankers, then the American elite wouldn’t be a distinct class at all, but instead the masses themselves in representative form.

The second reason is procedural. Unlike in every other developed country, higher education in the United States is dominated by private institutions (according to the 2022-23 US News & World Report rankings, 18 of the top 20 institutions are private). While Harvard’s leadership may have an interest in securing the legitimacy of the American ruling class, it wants to secure the wealth and status of Harvard first. From the just concluded case,  we know that Harvard desires 10 percent to 12 percent of its undergraduates to be African-American. At the same time it wants, in the words of Harvard professor Helen Vendler, “the next Homer, the next Kant, or the next Dickinson.” And it also wants the next Ken Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund alumnus who earlier this year gave his alma mater a $300 million unrestricted gift. It wants all these things at the same time that Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and every other elite institution of higher education in America does, as well.

While there is good evidence that these and similar pursuits build up the legitimacy of higher education in the eyes of the highly educated, evidence that it makes the American elite more legitimate in the eyes of the masses is sorely lacking. A Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year found that 52 percent of Americans with advanced degrees support race-based college admissions, while 42 percent oppose them. Among Americans without a college degree it is almost wholly reversed, with only 28 percent in approval while 52 percent disapprove. This pattern holds within racial groups. “Black, Hispanic and white college graduates are all more likely to approve of these practices than nongraduates of the same racial or ethnic background.” Pew polling further shows that since 2015, Republican voters hold a net negative opinion of the effect of higher education on the country. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s 2024 presidential campaign is clearly hoping to make headway on precisely these sentiments.

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions proscribes much of American higher education’s long-standing admissions practices regarding race, like Justice Lewis Powell before him, Roberts does throw the country’s diversocrats a lifeline: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Although the chief justice quickly follows up with a warning that “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” they have already moved toward a significantly more discretionary system of admissions. More than 80 percent of US four-year institutions did not require standardized tests for Fall 2023 admissions. The University of California system—which contains the country’s most prestigious public universities—permanently abandoned the SAT and ACT as part of its admissions process in 2021. Without a single common measurement tool across students, diversocrats will have even more freedom to craft a class of their liking.

In response to the court, Harvard’s leadership quickly issued a statement proclaiming its intention to “preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values” of diversity. The chancellor of the University of North Carolina likewise pledged to continue to “fulfill our mission and live out our values” in the face of the decision. Dozens (perhaps hundreds) of college and university presidents across the country did the same. America’s higher-education leaders desperately want to create a racially diverse elite. They do it for themselves in the first instance, for it shows them to be good in their own eyes. They do it also for the masses, encouraging them to find their elite worthy of its status and power. In light of American higher education’s obviously waning supply of public goodwill, the country’s colleges and universities would do well to see in Students for Fair Admissions an opportunity to reexamine their cherished “values” rather than to simply repeat them as a mantra. Every elite needs to cultivate legitimacy. The best way to do so is not striving to ever more narrowly represent the masses over which it rules. It is instead discerning how best to serve them.

Darel E. Paul is a Compact columnist and a professor of political science at Williams College.

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