There's something I've been mulling over in my head for a long time. It's an issue at the intersection of other excellent posts that folks have made here on the blogs, such as David's Putting Diversity Into Context and Anna's Being "Qualified" For MIT, as well as conversations (good and bad) that I've had with people on CollegeConfidential and elsewhere.
When I'm on the road, or in an information session, or online in various communities, I often am asked something along the lines of the following question:
What does MIT value more: diversity, or merit?
In its uglier, less delicate version, especially online, the premise underlying the question is not hidden within it at all, but barely-veiled, an unstated principle from which to derive a conclusion:
Oh, [that student] did / did not get in or will / will not be accepted because they are a woman / a minority / from a rural state / an athlete / an artist / a traveling magician, even though they are *unqualified*
Let's cut to the core of the matter. When somebody asks me this question, or proclaims this conclusion, they are assuming this: that MIT, for some students, values something called "diversity" more than something called "merit", and that we admit "underqualified" students who bring "diversity" instead of admitting more "meritorious" students who lack it.
This is simply wrong.
It is also subtly wrong. And here's the subtlety. The unspoken premise which undergirds this way of thinking assumes that there is a dichotomy between diversity and merit. We either select for diversity, OR we select for merit; they are otherwise exclusive characteristics, which cannot be combined in a single applicant.
I would hope that premise, once so plainly stated, is self-evidently absurd.
But in the pursuit of further conceptual clarity, let's talk a little bit more about these two factors - merit, and diversity - what we mean by them, and how they play into our admissions process.
When we talk about merit in the admissions process, what we really mean, for the vast majority of applicants, is closer to the idea of qualified or prepared. Based on a bevy of data in your application - your scores, your grades, your teacher recommendations, your courses, your achievements, and so forth - can we conclude that you are prepared to handle the material at MIT.
Now obviously "preparation" is in some sense a range. You can be more or less prepared for MIT based on the work that you have done and the experiences you have had. A student who has not taken calculus is comparatively much less prepared than a student who has.
But there is one thing that all students admitted to MIT have in common. And that is that we are confident they are prepared to succeed at MIT.
Put another way: while not all students admitted to MIT are equally well prepared - and how could they be, with such different experiences? - all students at MIT are sufficiently prepared to succeed at MIT.
We do not admit students who are not prepared to attend MIT. Period. No one benefits. Not MIT, when the student fails out. Not the student, when they could have succeeded somewhere else. Everybody loses. And I hate to lose.
By the same token, we do not admit students who are unqualified for admission to MIT. I define "qualified", for these purposes, as meaning "prepared" for attending MIT. We are not going to admit anyone, for any reason, who doesn't possess the qualification, the preparation - yes, the merit - to deserve, and to capitalize on, their admission.
Now, more than half the students who apply to MIT every year are qualified for admittance, by which I mean the majority of applicants are sufficiently prepared to do the work at MIT. The question thus arises: how do we constitute a class from all these qualified students?
This is where the idea of "diversity" comes in.
On our What To Do In High School page, we say this of our application process:
When we admit a class of students to MIT, it's as if we're choosing a 1,000-person team to climb a very interesting, fairly rugged mountain - together. We obviously want people who have the training, stamina and passion for the climb. At the same time, we want each to add something useful or intriguing to the team, from a wonderful temperament or sense of humor, to compelling personal experiences, to a wide range of individual gifts, talents, interests and achievements. We are emphatically not looking for a batch of identical perfect climbers; we are looking for a richly varied team of capable people who will support, surprise and inspire each other.
Put another way: we are not looking for the thousand students who aced the math SAT. Or the thousand students who won some biology award. Or - for that matter - the thousand students who come from poor, underrepresented backgrounds that make our hearts bleed. We are looking for the best mix of all these students who will together constitute a terrific class. And in assembling this class we consider many, many, many factors holistically in our process.
This is what we mean when we say we value "diversity." It means we want a lot of different people, from a lot of different backgrounds, to come to MIT and to learn from each other.
One of the most important things about college is its role as a socializing institution. College is a place where you meet all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and you learn from each other. It is, properly constituted, an environment which fosters intellectual, ideological, and social cross-pollination.
You need diversity - broadly defined - for college to matter. For college to be worth it. If all you want to do is learn stuff, you can go to the library and check out textbooks for free. If, on the other hand, you want to learn stuff, and to also learn from other people, and to become aware of problems which exist in the world which need solving, and learn to interact with people from different beliefs and backgrounds, then you need college. Or at least something so similar to college as to be effectively indistinguishable.
There is no easy way into MIT. There is no backdoor or bootstrap. You are admitted to MIT because you are awesome. You may be awesome and not be admitted. We only have so many beds and so many seats. But for every person we admit, you can be sure that they are sufficient prepared to do the work here, and that they are also going to contribute something to campus.
The point I am trying to make is this: when it comes to each applicant, we are not looking for merit or diversity. We are looking for merit and diversity.
It's not either/or.