Justice in Higher Education: Why We Must Move Beyond Admissions Policy

By Gina Schouten*


I want to argue for a shift in focus in conversations about justice in higher education. Because meritocratic admissions cannot meaningfully promote egalitarian justice, I argue that we should consider using weighted lotteries in admissions decisions, and that we should reform the culture of colleges and universities to make it likelier that students will conscientiously use their education to promote projects of social value. Before the argument, two matters of stage-setting.


The “traditional” view among political philosophers has it that the subject matter of justice is the institutional structure by way of which “the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation.”[ii] Plenty of other political philosophers dispute this institutional view about the subject matter of justice, but let’s assume that justice is, at least principally, a virtue of institutions.

Whatever the correct principles of justice demand, they demand it of the institutional structure as a whole, not of each particular institution within it. Suppose for example, that the correct principles of justice specify that no social and economic inequalities are permissible unless those inequalities are attached to positions that are open to all under conditions of robust equality of opportunity, and unless those inequalities make the least advantaged members of society better off than they would be under any other institutional arrangement.[iii] This does not mean that each particular institution of society must realize those principles internally; rather, each must participate in a division of institutional labor such that the institutional structure as a whole realizes those principles.

Consider, in broad outline, what an ideally just institutional division of labor between primary schools and higher education might plausibly look like: First, because early educational experiences largely shape later educational outcomes and because families differ in their capacity to equip children with the resources to achieve desirable outcomes, in an ideally just society, institutions of primary education would prepare all students to attain further educational goods. Presumably, this includes ensuring that all children enjoy fair opportunities to become meritorious along the dimensions of merit that subsequently inform admissions decisions in selective higher education. Second, in an ideally just institutional division of labor, other social institutions—family support regimes and labor markets, for example—would be arranged such that primary educational institutions can prepare all students in these ways: Those other institutions would ensure that no student enter schooling so inadequately prepared that she cannot be given a fair shot. Third, in an ideally just society, selective institutions of higher education (assuming they exist at all) would be tasked with responding fairly to developed merit, and with educating students for skilled and ethical public service.

In short: Principles of distributive justice plausibly demand some version of egalitarianism; but in order to realize those principles at the level of the structure of social institutions broadly, it is neither necessary nor sufficient that each particular institution realize those principles internally.

Second matter of stage-setting:

The division of labor just described was idealized. I described what each institution might be tasked with contributing to the project of realizing distributive justice at the level of the institutional structure, on the assumption that every other institution is doing its part too. But what we really want to know when we think about education policy is how to move from an unjust status quo to something more closely approximating realization of principles of justice—and what role education as a sector of society has to play in that project.

In that context, the point about institutional division of labor has different implications. Under our unjust status quo, early educational experiences still largely shape later educational outcomes, but no social institutions effectively work to equalize the capacity of different families to equip their children with the resources to become well-educated. For example, no effective tax-and-transfer system ensures that children will be free of the kinds of economic hardships that make it very difficult for them to learn. Primary education institutions cannot reasonably be expected fully to compensate for these stark inequalities in preparation that students bring with them into the classroom, and so students do not enjoy equal opportunities to become meritorious along those dimensions of merit that are treated as relevant in subsequent competitions.

This in turn has implications for selective higher education: Given injustice in other spheres of society, in order for institutions of higher education to play a meaningful role in nudging us toward justice, those institutions must do more than they would need to do merely to play their role in maintaining justice once achieved—they must do more than award access on the basis of merit and prepare students to perform well in the positions they’ll subsequently occupy.

The argument for this is simple, at least in outline:

Given that students have vastly unequal opportunities to become meritorious, even perfectly meritocratic selection procedures for scarce positions subsequent to primary education do not meaningfully promote the extent to which equal opportunity prevails in society broadly. Indeed, when those scarce positions are themselves a gateway to still further advantage, perfectly meritocratic procedures will serve only to exacerbate inequalities that are impugned by egalitarian principles of justice. To meaningfully promote justice, we must do something more.

The argument relies on two premises: first, that injustice in other spheres of society means that developed merit is unfairly distributed; second, that higher education serves as a gateway to still further advantages.

Support for the first premise has already been set, in describing the breakdown of the ideally just institutional division of labor. In our society, social class background heavily influences one’s achievement in primary and secondary education, which in turn largely influences one’s prospects for successfully securing admission to, and persisting in, higher education. As a result, selective colleges and universities disproportionally educate already advantaged students.

And few would deny the second premise: Colleges and universities confer still further advantage upon those students. Advantages include skills and credentials that are instrumentally valuable in securing jobs, as well as opportunities for intrinsically valuable learning experiences. Even among the pool of selective colleges and universities, social and economic background strongly influences the sort of institution one attends, the support one has—and conversely, the debt one incurs—while there, and the degree of advantage one acquires from attendance.

In these ways, selective institutions of higher education can amplify already entrenched social inequality. Even if we have hit upon the correct criteria of merit, and even if we carefully incorporate educationally-valuable considerations of diversity and inclusivity, our institutions will effectively select for already-advantaged students and then will confer still more advantage upon them. Higher education cannot play a valuable role in an institutional division of labor that bends the arc toward justice simply by living up to the demands it would incur in a fully just society. Neither can it play such a role simply by realizing principles of justice internally—for example, by allocating admissions spots on the basis of a principle of equal opportunity.

Maybe the conclusion to draw is that higher education as a sector of society can do little more than minimize its contribution to injustice. Even by implementing policy that removes all cost barriers to access, even by practicing affirmative selection procedures, even by expunging all anti-meritocratic practices and maintaining a steadfast commitment to supporting vulnerable students, we may not meaningfully move the arc toward justice. We only lessen our contribution to keeping it stuck where it is. But those of us who work within higher education often talk as if our institutions can do much more than this. We talk as if (suitably reformed) institutions of higher education can play a valuable positive role in nudging our society toward justice.

If we are committed to taking that possibility seriously, and if the pessimistic argument sketched above is sound, then we need to rethink our standard arsenal of allegedly justice-promoting policy tools. If unequal opportunity to develop merit means that each cohort is comprised disproportionally of students who have enjoyed unfairly large shares of opportunities to become meritorious, then the standard arsenal of policy tools like meritocratic or affirmative admissions and retention practices can do little more than lessen the extent to which institutions of higher education exacerbate injustice in the social structure broadly. To defend the conviction that higher education policy and practice can play a meaningful role in promoting a just institutional arrangement, we need to get creative and get bold. We need to continue to work toward fairer enrollment practices, but we need to recognize that the progress we can make through (meritocratic) admissions is limited by pervasive injustice in other social institutions. So long as so many of our students have enjoyed such a leg up prior to applying for college, and so long as college gives students a further leg up relative to those who don’t attend, we shouldn’t rest our hopes on better meritocratic admissions.

Here are two possibilities. They might be unworkable, but they give a sense for what it would take to make our policy live up to our aspirations for higher education to further the cause of social justice.

First, rather than propagating the ideal of perfectly meritocratic admissions that in reality track prior access to advantage, colleges and universities could specify a threshold of excellence and preparedness above which applicants are admitted by lottery. Randomization could be adjusted to secure the kind of demographically-diverse student body that’s crucial for a productive learning environment. As with any selective admissions processes, such a lottery will result in plenty of worthy candidates being excluded. And, as with any selective process, those who are selected will enter higher education largely as a result of good fortune. But by randomizing admissions above a threshold, we make manifest that those admitted enjoy access to that institution largely as a result of good fortune.

Second, if we want institutions of higher education to make a meaningful contribution to bending the arc, then we need to look not only beyond meritocratic admissions but beyond enrollment management altogether. Students admitted as part of a lottery will be less seduced by the fiction that their admission was due entirely to themselves and in no part to unearned good fortune. This can help us change the very culture of higher education. I propose that we think more about what it would look like were we explicitly to undertake to do just that. How might we use the curricular and extracurricular experience of higher education to promote a culture of justice among our students? I won’t spell out in detail what this change in culture might look like, beyond saying that I think it would call for significant change to teaching, advising, and institutional practices. Attending college—and particular, attending an elite, selective college—confers advantages that we cannot in good faith regard as wholly earned by those who enjoy them. If that’s right, then we cannot leave unchallenged the notion that higher education is legitimately treated as principally a means of self-enhancement. We certainly cannot encourage that notion.

The broader point I want to make is this: Reforming higher education to promote justice in our unjust society is a more demanding undertaking than much of our policy discussion about justice in higher education suggests. Meritocratic admissions and enrollment management policies are not enough; nor is preparing students to exercise “professional ethics” within labor markets and political structures as they are. Maybe we cannot create an educational culture of justice without practicing objectionable indoctrination. But it is worth considering.

This post is drawn from a longer work-in-progress in which I more fully defend the argument sketched here. That paper is available from the author upon request.

[ii] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press, 1999), 6.

[iii] John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001), 42.


*Gina Schouten is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.

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