Concerns about the undemocratic nature of elite institutions has led to intense public scrutiny of their admissions practices. Recently, a lawsuit claimed that Harvard unfairly discriminated against Asian-Americans. Oxford and Cambridge have faced criticism after a report showed that they admit a staggeringly low number of black students. Sciences Po’s efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity have also been controversial. Even though these institutions educate a minuscule proportion of university students, their admissions practices are a source of public concern because of the disproportionate amount of power they hold. One way of holding them accountable for living up to the democratic ideal is to insist that they admit students from a broad swath of society, including from those communities that are historically marginalised. The argument is that this will make the resulting elite more representative of the concerns of the country as a whole.
The diversity argument relies on an oversimplified view of what happens within educational institutions. Universities and colleges are places where knowledge is pursued and shared, but they are also social institutions made up of people who influence one another in myriad ways. College transforms students as thinkers. It also changes them significantly as social beings. All students undergo this kind of transformation in college. For students drawn from low-income neighbourhoods who are attending elite educational institutions, this transformation is bound to be profound. In all likelihood, college will be the first time that these students interact on a regular basis with members of the top echelons of society. These students are also learning how to be a part of the elite spaces they will enter after graduation. In doing so, they are likely to become less representative of the outsiders that they were.