Part 1: Someone Took My Spot
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will run next Monday, September 25.
I have taught at three different Christian colleges, all rooted in the Reformed tradition. In my teaching and scholarship, I have had occasion to learn many students’ perspectives on affirmative action. All of my experiences pre-date the recent Supreme Court case brought by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. At some level, as noted in higher education outlets, the ruling might not impact us mere mortals who teach and learn at less competitive schools. UNC rejects 80 percent of its undergraduate applicants and Harvard rejects more than 90 percent. Christian colleges, including those in the historic Reformed tradition, don’t have that luxury. We live in the tuition-dependent world. Last year my current institution, for example, rejected 20 percent of applicants. The two previous Christian colleges where I taught have recent rejection rates of 26 and 13 percent. So, at some level, Christian colleges might not be fussing about this ruling in the same way that the chattering class of national mediamight be.
Still, Christian college students have opinions on this issue and they see it as impacting their lives. Besides hearing from students in class over the years, in the fall 2003, I collected data that contained, among other elements, responses to open-ended questions about controversial topics, including affirmative action. The study is 20 years old and the findings weren’t all that helpful in answering my abstruse research question at the time regarding college students’ epistemological beliefs about learning and motivation. Still, the recent SCOTUS ruling nudged me to dig up that old material.
The study gave half of the students a prompt supporting affirmative action and half a prompt that was critical. These were constructed to represent both sides fairly:
Affirmative action is not meant to help blacks because of the color of their skin, but because they deserve compensation for past and continuing injustices. Opponents may criticize the wisdom of how this compensation is meted out, but they cannot question the principle of compensatory damages, which enjoys a long tradition in our society.
The first problem with affirmative action is the obvious fact that it is an attempt to end discrimination with discrimination. When a company or university discriminates against a white male for the sake of bettering the outcome of another racial group, an injustice occurs. Affirmative action is the governmental legislation of the active discrimination of one person over another—an unacceptable and dangerous double-standard.
My research student presented the study at a psychology conference in 2004 but it wasn’t published. The project needed more follow-up studies that I never completed. But what is still interesting for today is the content of the students’ comments. One theme from those who were critical of affirmative action is especially relevant to the current debate. At the risk of caricature, I would summarize it as follows: “I (or a friend) didn’t get into the University of Michigan and I know another (non-white) student who did get in with a lower ACT score/lower GPA.” My paraphrase: “Someone took my/my friend’s spot and that is not fair.” Not dissimilarly, when one of my own children in 12th grade breathed a sign of relief because their SAT score (the metric at the time) was the median for an envied competitive college, I tried to explain that college admissions was more complex than one score. My child’s curt response—“that’s not fair.”
What are we to make of this take-my-spot fairness claim? According to the Common Data Set in 2003-04, a total of 410 of the 5,550 first-year, degree-seeking students at the University of Michigan identified as Black/non-Hispanic. (This was the year that we collected our data for the above-mentioned project and prior to Michigan’s 2006 Proposal 2, which added to the Michigan Constitution the stipulation that public universities “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”) It is true that U of M is more diverse than most Christian colleges (64 percent of its undergraduates identified as White/non-Hispanic in 2003-04, and 51 percent in 2022-23). It is also the case, based on its rejection rate reported in NCES’s College Navigator, that Michigan rejected some 69,000 of its 84,289 undergraduate applications for the fall 2022. Even assuming a generous percentage of non-White applicants in the rejected group (an assumption that itself belies that claim that white students’ spots are being taken by non-white students), I find it difficult to argue that each of those declined students can claim that that one of the admitted students “took my spot.”
The take-my-spot argument is grounded in a belief that college admissions is a zero-sum operation. In game theory, a zero-sum contest means that the benefit of one participant results in a direct, one-to-one deficit of another. Chess, two-person blackjack, and most sporting events all fit the bill. But I don’t believe that the college-admission process is zero-sum. And yet, that’s the approach taken not just by the above-noted students, but also in SFA’s SCOTUS argument, as noted in a letter to colleges and universities following the ruling:
“College admissions are ‘zero-sum’ and thus ‘[a] benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter’.”
Furthermore, all of this is built on a false claim that college admission is, has been, and should be based on only one or two measures—presumably GPA or score on a college entrance exam. In other words, even if one accepts that the college-admission process is a zero-sum operation, there is no consensus as to what the decision criteria are. And even if an applicant’s race were fully removed from admissions decisions, the take-my-spot argument could still be made for other reasons. For example: Someone else took my spot because: a) she plays lacrosse, b) his dad is a donor, c) she is from Ontonagon County and I’m from Kent, d) he said that he wanted to major in Ancient Greek. To be clear, I don’t claim special knowledge about how colleges, even my own, make decisions on admissions. I’m simply making the point that there are many other factors besides race over which students who believe their spot was taken could grieve. Will it matter less to the student if he believes that his spot was taken because the accepted student is from Trout Creek when the declined student lives in East Grand Rapids?
Of course, neither the SCOTUS ruling nor my query of Christian college students in my 2003 study was about the Upper Peninsula or children of donors. It was about race. And it is probably not surprising to RJ readers that students at Reformed Christian colleges, whom many of us have taught, would be instinctively opposed to affirmative action based on race. The take-my-spot belief is ensconced in personal experience. The anecdotes, manifested in my student responses, are palpable to students who feel that meritocracy is real. And on smaller scales, such arguments, are even more compelling. For example, nursing programs at Christian colleges are small because of accreditation standards; in such cases, the take-my-spot belief could be even stronger because it’s easier to personalize the experience. But the argument is flawed for at least two reasons: 1) such decisions are not case-by-case decisions and 2) the take-my-spot grievance is isolated to a single decision criterion that supports one’s grievance.
Still, the argument that the SFA brought before the Supreme Court strikes a similar chord to those of the Christian college students whom I have heard. The claim has some intuitive plausibility, as noted some thirty years ago by venerated mathematical psychologist Robyn Dawes, commenting on affirmative action: “I learned two very important lessons as a very young child when I attempted to put my toys away in a toy box that wasn’t big enough to hold them all. Deciding which toys to put in the box was equivalent to deciding which toys to leave (strewn) on the floor. Moreover, deciding which individual toys to put in the box (leave on the floor) was equivalent to deciding which group of toys to put in it (leave on the floor).”
However, this claim doesn’t consider the ratio of the size of the box to the number of available toys. Thinking on the scale of major universities, if you have room for 7,000 toys that you can fit in the box (first-year cohort) and a total of 76,000 toys (total number of applicants), it’s difficult to see how any one of the 69,000 toys that didn’t get put in the box can claim that one of the 7,000 took its spot. Nor does Dawes’s claim consider whether the toy owner would find any value in her 7,000 toys all being the same—a box full of 7,000 Frozen Ice Palaces would not be the same as also having some Dimpl Digits and a retro Corn Popper in the box.
Some would argue that, even if colleges did have to re-shape their admissions procedures in light of the SCOTUS ruling, they could still “get away with it.” Colleges seem to have a broad-based admissions approach that will still satisfy the desire to diversify their student bodies. Years ago a talking-head critic of admissions policies quipped that universities have set up systems to “launder” their admissions data by declaring institutional priorities that are proxies for race. Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts all but signaled that such maneuvers would be expected, perhaps even encouraged when he wrote, “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.” Not wasting any time, Sarah Lawrence College has already added the Roberts quote to its application as an option for its application essay.
It’s perhaps too early to know how Christian colleges will respond to the SCOTUS decision. Most of these colleges are likely similar to mine, with target percentages of underrepresented students. Proposal 2 impacted public colleges, so Christian colleges in Michigan have not altered their processes in response to its passage in 2006. I am not legally trained, but my instinct tells me that the recent SCOTUS case will have little impact on CCCU or kindred schools. As noted above, most of us have very high acceptance rates, and thus the “take my spot” claim will carry little weight in any hypothetical litigation.
In short, I don’t see how the take-my-spot argument is a plausible foundation for contesting admissions strategies and selection criteria, particularly on the scale of large universities. In my next essay, I will reflect on a different kind of selection challenge that occurred at a different period in history in a different dimension of American life. In that case the privileged seemed very happy to have the less privileged take their place. But it was also a case of take-my-spot thinking.
The author thanks Jim Bratt for his generous and wise feedback and editing of this essay.