A survey of white Americans found that their definition of "merit" could change with regards to college admissions depending on whether they had information on the relative success of Asian-Americans, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Frank L. Samson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami, conducted the survey. Samson asked two groups of white California adults to rank the relative priority they thought various criteria should have in the University of California admissions system. The first group was given no information, and the second group was told that Asian-Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the University of California system as they do in the population of the state.

"When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions — apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (Nationally, Asians average total scores on the three parts of the SAT best white average scores by 1,641 to 1,578 this year.)

“When asked about leadership as an admissions criterion, white ranking of the measure went up in importance when respondents were informed of the Asian success in University of California admissions.”

Samson said the results of this study reveal the malleability of people's definition of "merit" when it comes to admissions. "Sociologists have found that whites refer to 'qualifications' and a meritocratic distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the purported failure of blacks to live up to this meritocratic standard, to bolster the belief that racial inequality in the United States has some legitimacy," Samson wrote in the paper. "However, the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit."

Samson's findings could have relevance as universities decide what kind of affirmative action programs to pursue in response to public opinion and judicial precedent. The Supreme Court recently sent an affirmative action case back to a lower court, refusing to strike down wholesale an affirmative action scheme instituted by the University of Texas, but ruling that such schemes must be reviewed under a strict scrutiny standard.

Samson wrote his findings might become more important in the future because, "As the U.S. Census Bureau projects that whites will become a numerical minority by 2042, it is reasonable to imagine a not-too-distant future where diversity goals may expand to target white students as underrepresented minorities."

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