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The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities

reviewed by Leah Hakkola - June 01, 2017

coverTitle: The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities
Author(s): Natasha K. Warikoo
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022640014X, Pages: 320, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

In The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, Natasha K. Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explores the logic informing how elite institutions of higher education and their students construct or communicate rationales for racial diversity on college campuses. By examining topics such as race based affirmative action, values of merit, and dominant race frames, Warikoo provides a critical perspective on how students and institutional leadership from prestigious universities like Harvard, Brown, and Oxford recognize, support, or shape understandings of race in today’s highly selective global educational arena.

Citing evidence from extensive interviews with 76 American and 67 British elite college students, Warikoo structures her study using four race frames. Through her inductive analysis, these American students’ perspectives on racial issues in admissions fall primarily within either the colorblindness frame or the diversity frame in the majority of cases. The first lens positions race as irrelevant when it is compared with the merit a specific individual possesses. The second lens advocates that cultural or racial differences positively impact one’s lived experience and contribute to the intercultural development of the collective college cohort. Warikoo continues her analysis with a third less prominent frame that she calls power analysis. It views the social construction of race through established systems of unequal distributions of power that influence interactions among groups. She completes her framework with a discussion of students who employ a culture of poverty frame. It espouses that racial and ethnic shortcomings are due to a minority group’s cultural deficits. Within these different frames, Warikoo argues that for American students, the diversity bargain structures diversity as a benefit by assisting and promoting the welfare of all students, not just those who are considered diverse.


To her initial surprise, Warikoo finds that British students view the diversity bargain from a different perspective than their American counterparts. Organizing her book into distinct sections, she clearly articulates how Americans focus on the value that diversity adds to the overall collective merit to make sense of race based calibrations of admissions criteria and decisions. On the contrary, Britons concentrate on the individual merit needed to succeed in elite institutions of higher learning and minimize the need to consider race in admissions altogether. The author reasons that this difference is grounded in the fact that Great Britain has never officially supported affirmative action based on race or class, which is a major impetus for supporting racial diversity on American campuses. As a result, Warikoo suggests that these two groups of students come to campus with conflicting expectations, understandings, and values regarding racial diversity. There are also differences in how these issues should be discussed and the ways they ought to be supported (or not) by their institutions. Despite these contrasts, Warikoo contends that American and British students largely reflect the beliefs or values of their respective institutions regarding race’s role in admissions processes.


The findings in this study reveal that most American and British elite college students assume the best about meritocracy. In fact, Warikoo claims that these students are actually perpetuating a system of inequities embedded in the fabric of our respective social structures. They mistakenly believe that only individual merit and worth lead to being admitted into elite institutions. Often both American and British students rationalize criticisms of meritocracy with anecdotal stories of minority student success. This obfuscates the role of individual luck within the structures put in place to level the educational playing field. The author asserts that students are missing the rooted historical and systemic injustices that contribute to unequal advantages for certain students over others who are usually white. Instead, through an application of different race frames, elite students tend to focus on individualistic tendencies of merit rather than structural hierarchies of power that create unfair admissions criteria. Simply stated, Warikoo’s findings highlight how students’ understandings of race and meritocracy minimize their perceptions of racism. These same learners also decenter the concept of race by rationalizing acts of discrimination through colorblind mentalities of academic merit.

Warikoo draws from a limited sample of college students. However, she artfully incorporates research that exhibits the structural inequalities that exist for racial and ethnic minorities throughout her book. In addition to an abundance of key participant quotes, she also weaves in data from leading scholars. This information demonstrates how students’ perspectives on race are created, produced, and reproduced by the cultural, legal, or sociopolitical discourses of our environments. Although it is solely focused on elite institutions, the author’s study dutifully reminds us that we must be critical of what we deem as just in an education system that is entrenched in neoliberal principles based on privilege and power. Her research also compels us to consider the goals of admissions policies that are based on race alongside the larger aims of higher education from an equity perspective. Warikoo adds value to higher education scholarship by encouraging leaders to use her four frames “as part of a cultural toolkit for making sense of the world and for responding to different situations” (p. 60). Future research in this area would benefit by focusing not only on race and ethnicity, but also centering other identities that are included in the broad scope of diversity. Warikoo’s framework in 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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 01, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22003, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:55:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Leah Hakkola
    University of Maine
    E-mail Author
    LEAH HAKKOLA is Assistant Professor in the Higher Education Program at the University of Maine. Her current research examines how local, national, and global discourses about diversity are developed and conveyed to students in the higher education recruitment process. Leahís academic and career goals are guided by a passion to work as both a scholar and practitioner, focusing on how discourses about difference shape and are informed by educational policies and practices, and how these discourses affect student success. Currently, Leah serves as a member of the Provostís Council for Advancing Women Faculty and as a faculty representative for the Rising Tide Center at the University of Maine. In these positions, she works as an ambassador and advocate for gender equity and diversity. She also provides guidance, advice, and expertise on strategies to support the recruitment and retention of diverse students, professionals, and faculty on campus.
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