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How Fairness Is Defined In Today's Hyper-Competitive College Landscape


It's unjust, but that's just how the world works. Well, that reaction to yesterday's indictments has Natasha Warikoo thinking about how we define fairness in today's hypercompetitive college landscape. Warikoo teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and she is author of the book "The Diversity Bargain." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NATASHA WARIKOO: I'm happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: So in this cutthroat world of college applications where getting in or not can depend on a lot more than grades and test scores, how do you define what's fair?

WARIKOO: Well, I would just say that I don't think there is any kind of consensus in American society on what would be fair. You know, it's blatantly clear that these cases are unfair. I think even those parents doing what they did would say that it's unfair. But I think there's other kinds of things, like, you know, buying test prep - SAT prep for your kids. I think a lot of people would say that's legitimate. That's fair. Others would say it's unfair because some families can't afford it.

And I would look at the outcomes of admissions, as well, and say, you know, if the outcome of a process - if the student body ends up a lot more privileged in - you know, whether by wealth or income or race, then, you know, ordinary 18-year-olds in the United States - then that would - that, to me, is a red flag. Like, something is not right here if we think that merit and, you know, worthiness is evenly distributed in our society, which I do.

SHAPIRO: So would you argue for a system where a person making a donation of millions of dollars and getting their name on a building at a university - their child has no greater chance of getting into the school than a random person coming from a random school somewhere in the country?

WARIKOO: Absolutely, I would agree with that.

SHAPIRO: And yet, it seems that these policies, these preferences given to legacies or athletes or donors - colleges have quietly accepted that for a long time, and these cases of overt fraud seem to have brought that into the spotlight. Why do you think people had not, until now, been talking about the kind of inherent unfairness of some of these common practices?

WARIKOO: Well, it was interesting listening to the students that were interviewed because it made me realize that a lot of students do question some of those policies. And, you know, even the - when the case was announced, you know, there was a statement about, this is not about buying a building...


WARIKOO: ...To help your kid get in. This is, like, blatant, overt fraud. And so I think there is some recognition. And I - but I think that, you know, it's interesting how - and I think the young woman said this earlier - that affirmative action is the one policy that sometimes - whose legitimacy sometimes gets called into question.


WARIKOO: But of course, that is the one policy that's actually trying to make the process more accessible and create more equity in terms of who's on these campuses. All of these other things are about, you know, making it more - you know, making - giving the privileged more privilege...


WARIKOO: ...Which is kind of crazy if you think about it.

SHAPIRO: So from where you sit at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, do you think there is a conversation among the people who run these institutes, these elite bastions of higher education that might actually change things in the long run?

WARIKOO: Well, I don't know that I hear any discussion about, for example, ending the influence of the development office or ending legacy preferences. I think these policies are, in a way, baked into the system, baked into the financial model, right? I mean, the universities are relying on donations from their alums to be able to run - you know, the running costs, as well, if we think about financial aid. You know, colleges can't afford to be - most colleges can't afford and aren't based on a model in which they would have a cross section of 18-year-olds who, you know - that represent 18-year-olds in terms of family income 'cause they just can't afford it. So it's hard to imagine what that would really look like.

SHAPIRO: Natasha Warikoo, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for joining us today.

WARIKOO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.