Americans have spilled a lot of ink grappling with affirmative action, and this summer’s Fisher v. Texas ruling shows that the issue remains far from settled.

That racial or economic demographics can be represented fairly in college admissions is the one concept uniting affirmative action’s opponents and champions. Disagreements tend to concern specifics, like how to arrive at the desired mix of students fairly. 

In a recent post, however, Matt Yglesias questions whether our higher education system is even capable of generating good admission policies.

Because American higher ed is organized by merit—the best students get to attend the best schools—candidates seen as average or sub-par will get the short end of the stick. Yglesias points out, too, that our definition of “best” is inflected by race:

the standard construction of who the “best” students are ends up massively underrepresenting black kids relative to their share in the population. On the other hand, efforts to redress that situation raise a new specter of unfairness if some Asian kids end up in a worse school despite being “better” candidates than some of the African-American students who were admitted. There's no resolution to this conundrum that's going to be broadly acceptable, because the underlying premise makes no sense.

As Yglesias notes, this unfairness is compounded by another discrepancy: how we allocate resources among institutions of higher learning. We spend far more money educating students at selective, private colleges than we do for public universities or community colleges.

So, even if the admissions process is improved wholesale, our meritocratic system will still undermine efforts to level the playing field. We’re fighting to fit a circle into a square—to achieve equity in an inequitable system.

Yglesias calls for debate by posing two questions: 

“why is so much government subsidy available to self-consciously elitist private institutions?” (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and “why is the funding structure of public institutions set up to maximize investment in the students with the least educational needs?”

The Century Foundation’s Community College Task Force addressed these topics in its May report Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream.

In their background paper “Community Colleges in Context: Exploring Financing of Two- and Four-Year Institutions,” Sandy Baum and Charles Kurose explain that community colleges “depend more than other colleges on appropriations from state and local governments,” and that “smaller public budgets have meant they have seen declines in per-student revenues and expenditures.”

Baum and Kurose suggest comprehensive policy plans that might remedy our dearth of community college funding. For example, we could approach higher education in a manner analogous to how we fund K-12 learning.

“The idea that low-income students need more resources in order to achieve outcomes approaching those of more affluent students has a long history in discussions of elementary and secondary school funding,” Baum and Kurose explain. Skeptics, though, argue about whether “any amount of money would be able to close the gaps—or about how far additional money would go in narrowing those gaps.”

Much like remodeled affirmative action plans, this approach lacks a precedent. “Even if there were a consensus with regard to K–12 education, it is not clear that the conclusions would transfer to postsecondary education.”

As Yglesias points out, our slew of unanswered questions must be circulated and dealt with if we are to consider serious education reform.

Baum and Kurose’s paper is available for download.