Admissions Rituals as Political Acts: Guardians at the Gates of Our Democratic Ideals
Law Review Article
affirmative action, race-neutral alternatives
Every year, selective colleges and universities engage in admissions rituals to reconstitute themselves. Institutions presumably align these high-stakes moments of civic pedagogy with their educational agenda: to produce knowledge, to promote learning, and to help individuals realize their intellectual, athletic, or artistic potential. The moment when admissions decisions are mailed is also fraught with political consequences that reach beyond the classroom to the boardroom, the legislature, and the kitchen table. At selective institutions of higher education, admissions decisions have a special political impact: rationing access to societal influence and power, and training leaders for public office and public life. Those admitted as students then graduate to become citizens who shape business, education, the arts, and the law for the next generation. Admissions decisions affect the individuals who apply, the institutional environments that greet those who enroll, and the stability and legitimacy of our democracy. They are political as well as educational acts.
At the same time that higher education is considered a democratic and educational necessity to many, it remains beyond the reach of all but a few. Indeed, a variety of ideological, demographic, economic, and sociological forces have converged to make seats in college very dear and the criteria for obtaining them very stringent, in ways that correlate with class, geography, and race. As a result, the few who enjoy access to higher education tend to be already quite privileged, although more low-income students now seek college degrees than ever before. In short, higher education has become a "gift from the poor to the rich."