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Do white people want merit-based admissions policies? Depends on who their competition is.

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. Texas, is advocating for a merit-based admissions policy.
Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. Texas, is advocating for a merit-based admissions policy.
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

The Fisher v. Texas Supreme Court case on affirmative action rested on whether race, as used in the University of Texas admissions policy, violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

On Thursday, the Court ruled that UT's policy was, in fact, constitutional. But the central question of the case stemmed from the underlying idea that racial considerations in admissions decisions inherently undermine academic merit.

Fisher contended that a merit-based admissions policy would be more fair than UT's existing holistic review policy, which includes race when evaluating applicants like Abigail Fisher who did not qualify for automatic admission by graduating in the top 10 percent of their class.

But research has also shown that white people put a greater emphasis on test scores when those considerations of merit are more likely to give them a leg up over students from other racial backgrounds.

Fisher hoped to ensure that everyone with the same skill set had access to the same education regardless of race. But race may be key to understanding who is more likely to make the meritocracy argument.

White people care less about merit if it gives them the upper hand

In 2013, University of Miami sociology professor Frank L. Samson released a study examining white adult Californians' views on merit-based admissions policies at public universities.

Each person surveyed was randomly assigned to consider either African Americans, Latinos, or Asians as their competition while weighing in on their views about the importance of standardized test scores. Half of those surveyed were also asked to give their views on merit-based admission after being told that Asian students account for 40 percent of students in the UC system despite making up 12 percent of state residents.

The focus on California is important: Affirmative action based on race and gender for employment and admissions within the University of California has been illegal for nearly two decades after 54 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 209 in 1996.

Nonetheless, Samson found that white Californians had inconsistent views on how much weight should be given to test scores when evaluating applicants. White Californians were much more likely to emphasize GPA when they perceived black people as their competition. However, when they compared themselves to Asian applicants and were told that Asian students are overrepresented on college campuses, white Californians deemphasized the importance of GPA.

Indeed, the degree to which white people emphasized merit for college admissions changed depending on the racial minority group, and whether they believed test scores alone would still give them an upper hand against a particular racial minority.

"If grade point average is understood simply as an indicator of an individual's work ethic or average academic achievement over a period of three or more years of high school coursework, the importance that grade point average should have as an admissions criteria should not vary based on the racial makeup or perceived group competition," Samson wrote.

As a result, the study suggests that the emphasis on merit has less to do with people of color's abilities and more to do with how white people strategically manage threats to their position of power from nonwhite groups.

The meritocracy myth

One of the fundamental paradoxes of the Fisher case was that she was advocating for a merit-based admissions review policy for which she may not be qualified.

According to court documents, Fisher was not good enough for admission the year she applied. She was not eligible for automatic admission through the university's top 10 percent policy. Her 3.59 GPA and 1180 SAT scores weren't bad. But in a year when the admission rate for non-automatic admit pool was more competitive than that of Harvard University, good scores just weren't good enough.

And even if she had received an additional point for race in the holistic review process, she still wouldn't have qualified for one of the provisional spots that overwhelmingly benefited white applicants. Of the students who were provisionally admitted to UT with lower test scores than Fisher, five were black or Latino applicants. Forty-two were white. The University also noted that 168 black and Latino students with better academic and personal achievement records than Fisher were rejected.

Nonetheless, Fisher perpetuated the myth of meritocracy that everyone with the same skills and experience should have the same access to opportunities regardless of their background, despite evidence that shows otherwise.

A 2009 sociological study found that white applicants were three times more likely to be admitted to selective schools than Asian applicants with the exact same academic record. Additionally, affirmative action will not do away with legacy admissions that are more likely available to white applicants.

College campuses are changing. In 1976, 84 percent of college students in the US were white compared with only 60 percent in 2012. But those demographic shifts don't necessarily indicate a student body that is less qualified than those of the past. Those changes are more likely an indication that the academy is getting better at including qualified nonwhite students who have been historically denied access to higher education.