Renu Mukherjee joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the push to eliminate merit-based admissions at selective high schools. 

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Renu Mukherjee. She’s a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute and a Ph.D. student in American politics at Boston College. She studies a range of topics, including education, public interest groups, and political attitudes among racial and ethnic minorities. She’s currently at work on a dissertation that focuses on affirmative action. Renu writes regularly for City Journal. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The Hill. Today, we’re going to discuss her City Journal essay, “The Next Battle Over Racial Preferences,” which appears in our autumn issue and examines the push to eliminate merit-based admissions at selective high schools. So Renu, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

Renu Mukherjee: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So across the country, selective public high schools offer a specialized alternative to standard schools, more rigorous, often with a specific pedagogical theme. Admission to these high schools has traditionally been merit-based and competitive, with the decisions based on students’ GPAs, standardized test scores. So I wonder, just to start to give some background here, could you just explain what these schools offer that goes beyond a standard public high school education, and why is there such competition to get into them?

Renu Mukherjee: So these schools are viewed among parents, and oftentimes immigrant parents, as a golden ticket to the upper levels of American society and a better life for the reason that, whereas in a normal public school system, if your school is offering say, five, 10 AP courses, that’s viewed as excellent. Whereas taking AP courses, for example, beginning as early as your first year or your sophomore year is sort of the norm.

On top of a more rigorous curriculum in that sense, one of the schools that I feature in the essay, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science in Alexandria, Virginia, offers classes in electrodynamics, in mechanical engineering. These are things you wouldn’t just get at your local public high school, and even not in some private high schools. And so, you’re often taking college- and advanced-level courses, completing coursework, doing internships at hospitals and engineering labs that you wouldn’t get in most other settings.

Brian Anderson: Now, many of these selective high schools feature higher percentages of enrollees who are Asian American and white, and lower percentages of black and Hispanic students in terms of the demographics of their communities. What, in your view, is behind this racial imbalance, which is really at the heart of the controversy surrounding the admissions policies of these schools?

Renu Mukherjee: So these schools have been under fire for years and years, but we really saw the push to do away with merit-based admissions in the form of GPAs and test scores after the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020. You had school boards and school districts that fall and winter in New York, in Boston, in Fairfax County, Virginia, really all over the country saying, “Because the racial demographics of these elite public high schools don’t mirror the racial demographics of students in the various districts, that there’s some sort of racial bias at play in the admissions that are going on.”

And so that’s why in some cases you have less of a focus on GPA, and in nearly all cases you have school districts doing away with standardized admissions tests. The overall belief was if you don’t have the racial demographics of the school mirroring that of the general student population, there has to be some sort of discrimination going on.

Brian Anderson: What are these schools being required to substitute for standardized tests?

Renu Mukherjee: What’s really interesting is that the change in admissions tests is really a change in admissions policies that now focus more on, for example, holistic factors such as your essay in which students are encouraged to detail discrimination. They’ve experienced what are called “experience factors”—what are the racial demographics of your neighborhood? What’s your socioeconomic status? These are portrayed as being race neutral, but in fact, they’re race conscious, and in discussions at school board meetings and in private district meetings, you have administrators saying, “These are race neutral, but we’re implementing them because they’re going to have a race-conscious effect to decrease the number of white and especially Asian children, and increase the number of black and Hispanic children.”

Brian Anderson: Now, the Supreme Court has outlawed the use of race in admissions, higher education admissions, but it’s yet to consider these supposedly race-neutral policies that in fact do have an effect on particular racial or ethnic groups disproportionately. And so, you write in this recent City Journal essay that this is indeed going to be the next battle over racial preferences. So I wonder, you talk about schools in Virginia, Boston, and in New York City. Have the policies that have been put in place in these selective schools met any kind of legal challenges so far? And what sort of traction might this gain in terms of court decisions?

Renu Mukherjee: It’s a very exciting time for advocates of colorblindness and equal educational opportunity because the Supreme Court is currently considering the petition for Coalition for TJ, which is a group of parents that sued the Fairfax County School Board and School District in the last year or so for changing the admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science, which is currently ranked, and has been ranked, as the top public high school. It’s a magnet school in Virginia.

And so the Supreme Court is currently considering their petition. What happened at that school was the admissions policy change away from standardized tests and GPA to more of a holistic standard, which led to a decrease in Asian enrollment of almost 20 percentage points as a result of the admissions change just in one cycle. And school board members and the Principal of Thomas Jefferson High School were also caught saying that they didn’t want students who’d been in tests prep since the second grade, that the demographics of TJ did not match the demographics of Northern Virginia, that it wasn’t racially diverse. So a lot of stereotypes against Asian students.

So it’s exciting that this group of parents won at the district court level. Then the Fourth Circuit overturned that decision, and so these parents appealed it and they’re represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation to the Supreme Court. So hopefully within the next few weeks we’ll know whether the court is going to take up this case or not. And parent and civil rights groups that are predominantly Asian American have also sued Boston Public Schools and the former de Blasio administration for admissions changes to merit-based exam schools in New York City and Boston.

Brian Anderson: You talk about these parent groups who’ve gotten involved in these battles over curriculum and admissions. What has the general public perception been of these new policies? Have they proven controversial? And in terms of the schools being able to maintain their academic standards in the absence of merit-based admissions, what does that scenario look like?

Renu Mukherjee: So the public perception of these parent groups is somewhat mixed. What’s interesting is that in other research I’ve done, you see that liberal Democrats, white Democrats are much more uncomfortable with racial preference or affirmative action schemes when the victims are minorities themselves. And other people have found this as well, other scholars, as opposed to white victims. And so on the one hand, you have those that are in favor of racial preferences of diversity, equity, and inclusion, demonizing these Asian parent groups. But at the same time, it’s hard for the media, for Democratic office holders to completely turn a blind eye to the discrimination that’s been going on.

And in terms of what this has meant for academic standing at these incredible schools, not necessarily at TJ or the Boston schools or New York City, but in other pieces I’ve written for City Journal, Lowell High School in San Francisco and other exam-merit schools, it’s viewed as the crown jewel of public high schools west of the Mississippi. Once they changed their admissions policy from merit-based after 2020 to a lottery system, you saw the highest percentage of D’s and F’s given to incoming freshmen ever. And so when you’re admitting students that might not have the academic preparation to engage and handle a rigorous curriculum, you’re not necessarily doing them any favors. In fact, you’re making their future success much harder to achieve.

Brian Anderson: I guess you could see also if that kind of situation continued, pressure arising within the schools to reduce standards to allow some of the students who aren’t up to speed academically to do better.

Renu Mukherjee: Exactly. And you’re seeing at Lowell and in other elite public high schools throughout the country, a push, for instance, to do away with AP exams, to do away with separating students also by those that have a higher proficiency for math at the elementary school level in terms of gifted and talented programs. So you’re exactly right that when you’re admitting students that aren’t academically prepared, and then that’s showing, and as a result, those students and their families feel negatively that their children are not performing well, instead of dealing with that reality and what the underlying conditions of that might be, schools instead are saying, “Well, let’s just do away with advanced classes altogether.”

Brian Anderson: Let’s turn to the question of the moment about higher education campuses following Hamas’s brutal October 7 terrorist attack in Israel. Faculty and students, as our listeners probably know by now, at many elite universities, have declared support for Hamas or apologized for its attacks and blamed Israel for the genesis of the conflict. You trace this kind of thinking to what you describe as a kind of “ideological monoculture” present on many American college campuses. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that, how it might influence students’ thinking or their willingness to speak out in a different way than might be the prevalent feeling on campus?

Renu Mukherjee: Sure. So what’s interesting is that at Harvard, for example, where this is ground zero for much of the anti-Semitism that has been occurring in debates over lack of free speech and viewpoint diversity. The student newspaper there, The Crimson, publishes annually what they call freshman survey of the incoming class that they field every August. And what that survey has shown since they began doing it eight or nine years ago is that ideological diversity is decreasing drastically at the school. And the starting point when the survey first began almost a decade ago was already in a pretty dire situation.

In recent years, you only have about one or 2 percent of incoming freshmen saying they identify as conservative. You have about 8 percent to 10 percent saying they identify as intellectually and politically moderate. And so, if you have an environment in which over 70 percent of incoming freshmen at Harvard, and the student body identifies as being politically liberal and progressive and holding the views that are associated with that, because these surveys also ask students questions, for example, if they support defunding the police; super majorities say that they do. If you have an environment where it’s just ideologically unanimous in one way and that way is progressive and anti-Israel, students who are conservative and moderate are not going to feel comfortable speaking out. And in fact, through surveys that have been done by fire and the College Pulse and other similar organizations, we see that that’s exactly the case. That because of this ideological monoculture, students who would normally speak out don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so.

Brian Anderson: It’s very troubling. Renu, thanks very much. Don’t forget to check out Renu’s work on the City Journal website at She’s done a number of excellent pieces, including the one we’ve been primarily discussing here, “The Next Battle over Racial Preferences.” We’ll link to her author page in the description, where you can find that content, and you can find her on X @RenuMukherjee1. She is a very vibrant voice on X. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi.

And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Renu, thank you very, very much for coming on.

Renu Mukherjee: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Photo: asikkk/iStock

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