The Diversity Bargain And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities
by Natasha Warikoo
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-40014-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-65107-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-40028-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.001.0001


We’ve heard plenty from politicians and experts on affirmative action and higher education, about how universities should intervene—if at all—to ensure a diverse but deserving student population. But what about those for whom these issues matter the most? In this book, Natasha K. Warikoo deeply explores how students themselves think about merit and race at a uniquely pivotal moment: after they have just won the most competitive game of their lives and gained admittance to one of the world’s top universities.
What Warikoo uncovers—talking with both white students and students of color at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford—is absolutely illuminating; and some of it is positively shocking. As she shows, many elite white students understand the value of diversity abstractly, but they ignore the real problems that racial inequality causes and that diversity programs are meant to solve. They stand in fear of being labeled a racist, but they are quick to call foul should a diversity program appear at all to hamper their own chances for advancement. The most troubling result of this ambivalence is what she calls the “diversity bargain,” in which white students reluctantly agree with affirmative action as long as it benefits them by providing a diverse learning environment—racial diversity, in this way, is a commodity, a selling point on a brochure. And as Warikoo shows, universities play a big part in creating these situations. The way they talk about race on campus and the kinds of diversity programs they offer have a huge impact on student attitudes, shaping them either toward ambivalence or, in better cases, toward more productive and considerate understandings of racial difference.
Ultimately, this book demonstrates just how slippery the notions of race, merit, and privilege can be. In doing so, it asks important questions not just about college admissions but what the elite students who have succeeded at it—who will be the world’s future leaders—will do with the social inequalities of the wider world.  


Natasha K. Warikoo is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City.


“Drawing on in-depth interviews with a diverse sample of undergraduate students, Warikoo offers an insightful reading of what elite students have to say about admissions, merit, and race, as well as provocative observations about the role and effectiveness of different kinds of diversity programs and the differences between the United States and United Kingdom. Exploring the various ‘racial frames’ that students use to make sense of the relationship between merit and race, she offers a powerful contribution to ongoing debates about affirmative action and higher education.”
— Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, University of Toronto

“Warikoo brings new illumination to debates about affirmative action in higher education by focusing on the beliefs and actions of students at elite institutions. Perhaps most important, she identifies the ‘bargain’ that white students have developed to support affirmative action. They have come to affirm a sense that diversity benefits the whole and creates a culture of ‘collective merit’ that is more important than ‘individual merit.’ At the same time, they support this conception only so long as minority students do not receive group benefits on campus over and above what they earn through achieving higher grades and positions in co-curricular life. In an age of continued contention about racial preferences, standardized testing as an element in admissions, real and imagined microaggressions, constraints on acceptable speech, and aspirations for a more inclusive society, Warikoo’s book delivers insights that are both novel and clarifying.”
— Steven G. Brint, vice provost of Undergraduate Education, University of California, Riverside

The Diversity Bargain is a thoughtful and original work. By probing the views of British and American elite college students, Warikoo enriches our understanding of the meaning of merit, opportunity, and race today. Her book casts a bright light on the significance of opportunity in highly unequal settings. Well-written and engaging, it will be of interest to a wide range of readers, including students, university administrators, and policy makers.”
— Annette Lareau, University of Pennsylvania, author of Unequal Childhoods.

“Highlights a persistent question facing diversity efforts in higher education: how do universities make the case for diversity in the highly selective, competitive, and rigorous environments that define them as elite institutions? . . . Many institutions have embedded the diversity bargain in their own marketing for multicultural programming. The author provocatively laments that by adopting such rhetoric, universities—and the students that they influence—may limit their ability to make real social change.” 
— Publishers Weekly

The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate.”
— Rose Courteau, Atlantic

“The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, offers a fascinating, erudite and scholarly study. . . . Through interviews with dozens of students at four elite universities in the US and UK, she explores the nuances of their perspectives on these issues [of diversity]. She also looks at different diversity-oriented programming offered at these campuses, and the varying impacts they have on the frames through which students understand their respective ‘diversity bargains’.”
— Pop Matters

"[A] tightly argued account of contemporary student attitudes about race."
— Catharine R. Stimpson, Public Books

“Warikoo challenges elite universities to rethink their part in that system, inviting them to consider what it would mean to scrap the notion of meritocracy and replace it with an admissions lottery. This thought experiment, Warikoo argues, would at least ‘make clear what distinctions admissions officers are making, why they are making them, and the implications of those decisions.’ Warikoo’s challenge is a useful one to elite universities and sociologists alike.”
— Sociology

"Warikoo (Harvard Graduate School of Education) acknowledges that elite institutions of higher education commit resources to diversifying their student bodies, yet fall short of their goals with respect to race and class. While admissions offices and enrolled white students value affirmative action and diversity, they do so because they feel much is to be gained and learned by diversifying the collegiate way of life. That the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the student body fall short of their relative percentages of the population does not occur to them as a problem, for two reasons. First is faith in the concept of merit. Second is the conviction that the admission process is fair. Thus, admitted students ascribe this distinction to individual merit and are thereby willing to accept some affirmative action so long as it personally benefits their own college experience. This is the diversity bargain. But demographic realities raise the question as to what merit is and how it can be redefined to ensure that all sectors of the population can access the opportunities that society offers. The author distinguishes between symbolic and real solutions and has several suggestions for next steps. A sophisticated contribution unobtrusively informed by current theory and distinguished by substantial field research at Brown, Harvard, and Oxford. Highly recommended."
— Choice

"[Warikoo] artfully incorporates research that exhibits the structural inequalities that exist for racial and ethnic minorities throughout her book....The Diversity Bargain offers a fresh and incisive perspective on one of the most heated and enduring social justice issues of the twenty-first-century."
— Teachers College Record

“[H]ow do undergraduates think about issues of race, merit, and opportunity? This is the central question in The Diversity Bargain….Through these interviews, Warikoo builds a typology for how students perceive race (termed ‘race frames’) and examines how these frameworks vary across the demographic groups of interviewed students. These frames are some of the most compelling aspects of this book, demonstrating the variety and complexity of students’ perceptions surrounding race at highly selective universities.”
— Administrative Science Quarterly

"Elite university students have the prospect to be future leaders and to shape policy in our global society. As Natasha Warikoo notes in The Diversity Bargain, these students’ ideas about race and meritocracy provide us with glimpses into the future as well as reminders of ongoing debates around affirmative action. Drawing upon interviews with students from Brown, Harvard, and Oxford, the author details their interconnected 'race frames'—interpretive ideas about the role of race in elite universities and society more broadly—and the prevalence of color blindness, a common frame and ideology surrendering race and racism to irrelevancy in the present day."
— American Journal of Sociology

"Warikoo’s investigation is rooted in a long sociological tradition of understanding the culture of privilege among “power elites.” While more attention has been given as of late to the racial attitudes and beliefs of members of nonelite groups, understanding how college students at institutions, such as Harvard, Brown, Oxford, and Cambridge, articulate an understanding about race is important precisely because it is these young people who are most likely to end up in positions of power. Warikoo makes a cogent point when she insists that elite colleges and universities have symbolic meaning, influencing the policies and practices of other institutions."
— Humanity & Society

"If evidence were needed that tomorrow’s leaders do not enter college with the racial knowledge they need to guide the United States and United Kingdom through a turbulent time in our racial histories, The Diversity Bargain provides it. The book shows that white nationalism is not required to protect systems of white supremacy in ostensibly democratic societies. All it takes is leaders turning a blind eye to the pervasiveness of antidemocratic frames that quietly reinforce racial hierarchies."

— Political Science Quarterly

"Students at elite universities may see themselves as 'winners,' but even they at times need to rationalize their elite status. That Warikoo shows us how a concept of diversity is recruited into a meritocratic justification is The Diversity Bargain’s main contribution to higher education studies."
— Journal of College Student Retention

"Rather than evaluating the implementation or effects of affirmative action, Warikoo interrogates what it does: how does affirmative action in admissions factor into elites’ understandings of race and merit? The book is a timely and crucial intervention, given the recent course of affirmative action politics and the scholarly knowledge we have accumulated to date."
— Contemporary Sociology

"A timely and crucial intervention, given the recent course of affirmative action politics. . . . A carefully constructed, incisive book. It stays true to the empirical data to develop smart, accessible, important findings."
— Ellen Berrey, Contemporary Sociology


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0001
[Higher education;Meritocracy;Diversity;Race;Elites;Culture;Britain;Admissions;Harvard;Oxford]
This introduction begins by tracing the history and development of the author’s understandings of race and meritocracy. It explains that conceptions of merit in the United States are deeply tied to conceptions of race, especially with respect to affirmative action. The key question this book asks is, how do students make sense of a system of reward that is wildly unequal in its distribution of rewards, yet has rewarded them through a very selective process? The book makes multiple comparisons: British students at Oxford University compared to US Ivy League students; students attending Brown University versus Harvard University; and students of different racial backgrounds. The conceptions of race and merit students develop in college are likely to endure, and the views of students attending elite universities are especially important because many students will go on to hold key leadership positions in society in the future.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0002
[Higher education;Meritocracy;Diversity;Race;Elites;Affirmative action;Britain;Admissions;Harvard;Oxford]
Chapter 1 begins by tracing the history of conceptions of merit. It explains how conceptions of merit in admissions have shifted over time, to meet a variety of institutional goals. When systems based on a notion of meritocracy have become widely perceived to favor particular groups and to block access for the disadvantaged, education systems have employed various strategies to legitimate meritocracy. Chapter 1 also outlines the history of affirmative action in college admissions in the United States, and the history of efforts to expand access to higher education in Britain. This section includes a discussion of the contrasting British and American conceptions of the role of elite higher education in society. After the historical discussion, this chapter explains how elite British and American universities admit undergraduates today. Finally, the chapter discusses the research that is the basis of this book: 143 in-depth interviews with undergraduates at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford. The chapter ends with an outline of the book.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0003
[Race frames;Racial inequality;Color-blindedness;Diversity;Culture of poverty;Harvard University;Brown University]
Chapter 2 highlights American students’ understandings of the role that race plays in society—their race frames. A color-blind frame assumes that race does not and should not play a role in society. Many white and Asian American students brought a color-blind frame with them to college. Almost all American students, across race lines, held a diversity frame, viewing race as a cultural identity that shapes individuals’ worldviews and cultural practices in positive ways. The college experience emphasized the diversity frame for many. About half of black and Latino students, as well as a small number of white students, expressed a power analysis frame, viewing the significance of race in society according to unequal power relations between groups. Finally, a small number of white and Asian American students expressed a culture of poverty frame, which suggests that minority disadvantage stems from cultural characteristics such as a lack of a strong work ethic or a disregard for marriage. Students often employed multiple race frames, using them in response to different interview questions and in different situations. These frames are the building blocks for students’ conceptions of merit, addressed in subsequent chapters.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0004
[Race frames;Color-blindedness;Diversity;Racism;Harvard University;Brown University;Higher education;Culture]
Chapter 3 highlights differences in the campus experience for Harvard and Brown students. It begins by highlighting the similar institutional supports for diversity on both campuses, and on other similar campuses. Then, it outlines Brown’s history of institutional support for a power analysis frame, along with student perspectives on those institutional supports. Most students who engaged significantly with Brown’s Third World Center (now Brown Center for Students of Color) and the Third World Transition Program report deep, important shifts in their worldviews, and a strong understanding of the historical underpinnings of racial inequality in the United States. In contrast, non-participants—especially those who are white—expressed ambivalence and criticism for those supports, claiming they divide the campus. At Harvard, institutional supports emphasize a diversity frame, including cross-racial connections and multicultural performances. Most students appreciate these supports, yet those engaged were less likely to articulate a strong understanding of contemporary racial inequality and its roots. The chapter concludes by arguing for universities to address both cross-racial dialogue and developing an understanding of racial inequality.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0005
[Diversity bargain;Diversity;Race;College admissions;Affirmative action;Meritocracy;Higher education;Admissions;Elites;Harvard]
Chapter 4 highlights American students’ conceptions of merit in admissions. Overall, students seemed to reproduce the criteria for merit and the language justifying it that they heard from their universities. Students thought admissions officers should calibrate evaluations of merit and also consider the collective merit of the cohort—that is, how an applicant would contribute to the cohort’s diversity. The consideration of collective merit as the justification for affirmative action led many white students to express a diversity bargain. That is, they supported affirmative action in as much as it benefitted themselves, by bringing diverse perspectives to campus. This meant that they expected their black and Latino peers to integrate at all times, in order to maintain their part of the diversity bargain, and they bristled when they saw groups of black and Latino students together or joining race-based campus organizations. The diversity bargain led many white students to express a reverse discrimination script, fearing affirmative action going “too far” and preventing them from opportunities, again contravening the justification of affirmative action as for their own benefit. Black and Latino students, however, did not buy into the diversity bargain.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0006
[Race;Racism;Moral worth;Political correctness;Harvard University;Brown University;Culture]
Chapter 5 highlights the tensions related to race and inter-racial interactions on the elite American college campus, due in part to students’ race frames and the diversity bargain. White students fear the moral judgment “That’s racist,” while students of color are anxious about how they will be treated by whites, based on experiences of racism in the past. This chapter also discusses students’ perspectives on “political correctness.” When making sense of political correctness, most students weighed their desire not to offend with their desire for inter-racial dialogue.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0007
[Meritocracy;Diversity;Britain;Oxford University;Race;Race frames;Color-blindedness;College admissions;Elites]
Chapter 6 turns to race frames and conceptions of merit among students at Oxford University. It begins with a discussion of British multiculturalism and higher education. Elite universities in Britain do not have the same institutionalized supports for diversity and for minority students as exist on most elite colleges in the United States. As a result, many Oxford students employed a color-blind frame, but the diversity frame was much less common in Britain compared to the US. The culture of poverty frame was more common in Britain. Many British students did not articulate any race frame--the overall time students had spent thinking about race and racial inequality was much lower than for American students. For many, the dominant color-blind frame coincided with disagreement with any consideration of background in university admissions. Most Oxford students advocated for individualized evaluations of merit that did not take into consideration the applicant’s family or school background. This was true of white and minority students alike. Overall, like students in the United States, students in Britain were deeply embedded in their universities’ cultures, both past and present, and reproduced the admissions criteria of their university.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0008
[Race;Racism;Oxford University;Britain;Political correctness]
Chapter 7 illuminates how race shapes campus life at Oxford. Many white British students saw tolerance and multiculturalism as endemic to their British identities, and consequently rejected accusations of racism. Still, many minority students at Oxford reported experiences with blatant racism. Both minority and white students on the Oxford campus rejected the notion of “political correctness” for going “too far”—that is, for seemingly absurd recommendations. Relatedly, many white British students defended race-related humor as acceptable, despite some minority students reporting a lack of space to criticize those jokes. Overall, many Oxford students were quite blunt in discussing racial differences and inequality, not fearing the moral judgment of “that’s racist” as many students did in the United States. White Britons felt free to define the limits of offense and morality related to race. The result is a lack of a forum to address issues of race and racism on the Oxford campus.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226400280.003.0009
[Higher education;Meritocracy;Diversity;Race;Elites;Affirmative action;Britain;Admissions;Harvard University;Oxford University]
This concluding chapter highlights key findings from the book and brings them together. Students in both the United States and Britain espouse perspectives on admissions that legitimate their own status as winners of a highly competitive admissions contest. The problem with this understanding of the admissions process is that it blinds students to the numerous sources of inequality in admissions. It argues that being an inclusive democracy requires a rethinking of conceptions of race and merit. This could be done by first defining the goals of meritocratic processes such as elite college admissions. Second, it argues that affirmative action should rest on an argument about redress rather than diversity. Third, college campuses should address race in ways that go beyond the diversity frame, emphasizing the production of racial inequality in the United States, past and present. Finally, the conclusion argues that it is important to recognize that meritocracy is never complete—that is, complete equity of opportunity is not possible, and hence it is important to also pay attention to the needs of those unsuccessful in meritocratic processes.