The recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) declaring the current admission policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina illegal have sent shock waves through the university and graduate school communities. In the minds of many observers, these decisions have effectively eliminated affirmative action as a tool for leveling the playing field for ethnic minorities.
However, there are some commentators who feel that affirmative action has never been as effective as others have believed. They point out that the number of students admitted to the most selective schools is very small compared with the entire nation’s collection of colleges and universities. Regardless of where you come down on the effectiveness of past affirmative action policies, the SCOTUS decision is a done deal. It’s time to move on and begin anew our search for inclusion-promoting strategies that will pass the Court’s litmus test of legality.
I count myself among those who are optimistic that there are enough of us committed individuals that a new and better version of affirmative action is just over the horizon. Some of my supporting evidence can be found in aby Stephanie Saul describing the admissions policy at the University of California Davis Medical School. The keystone of the university’s policy is a “socioeconomic disadvantage scale” that takes into account the applicant’s life circumstances, such as parental education and family income. This ranking – on a scale of 0 to 99 – is tossed into the standard mix of grades, test scores, essays, interviews, and recommendations. It shouldn’t surprise that UC Davis is now one of the most diverse medical schools in the United States despite the fact that California voted to ban affirmative action in 1996.
The socioeconomic disadvantage scale may, in the long run, be more effective than the current affirmative action strategies that have been race based. It certainly makes more sense to me. For example, in 2020 the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) made a significant philosophical change by broadening and deepening its focus on the social sciences. To some extent, this refocusing may have reflected the American Association of Medical Colleges’ search for more well-rounded students and, by extension, more physicians sensitive to the plight of their disadvantaged patients. By weighting the questions more toward subjects such as how bias can influence patient care, it was hoped that the newly minted physicians would view and treat patients not just as victims of illness but as multifaceted individuals who reside in an environment that may be influencing their health.
While I agree with the goal of creating physicians with a broader and more holistic view, the notion that adding questions from social science disciplines is going to achieve this goal never made much sense to me. Answering questions posed by social scientists teaching in a selective academic setting doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the applicant has a full understanding of the real-world consequences of poverty and bias.
On the other hand, an applicant’s responses to a questionnaire about the socioeconomic conditions in which she or he grew up is far more likely to unearth candidates with a deep, broad, and very personal understanding of the challenges that disadvantaged patients face. It’s another one of those been-there-know-how-it-feels kind of things. Reading a book about how to ride a bicycle cannot quite capture the challenge of balancing yourself on two thin wheels.
The pathway to becoming a practicing physician takes a minimum of 6 or 7 years. Much of that education comes in the form of watching and listening to physicians who, in turn, modeled their behavior after the cohort that preceded them in a very old system, and so on. There is no guarantee that even the most sensitively selected students will remain immune to incorporating into their practice style some of the systemic bias that will inevitably surround them. But a socioeconomic disadvantage scale is certainly worth a try.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at.