In the recently reinvigorated battle over college admissions, Yale has nobly thrown its full support behind a deeply flawed, profoundly contentious and ultimately essential system. We will defend affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Yale’s General Counsel said last week. We are right to do so.

This spring, the Supreme Court will hear two cases that challenge Michigan’s policy of giving added weight to applications from students with minority backgrounds. The cases — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — involve individual students who claim they were denied admission to the university’s law school and undergraduate program, respectively, in part because they are white.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration filed a brief with the Court claiming Michigan’s discriminatory policy is unconstitutional. In response, Yale will file a brief supporting the university’s admissions policy, in which officials evaluate applications on a 150-point scale, giving 20 extra points to minority students.

The meritocracy the Bush administration imagines in order to oppose affirmative action is not only nonexistent, it is inconceivable. As it is now, the college admissions process heavily favors students who can afford the complete package of pre-college advising, prep school and the Princeton Review. That is why President Levin and the Yale administration moved from a binding early decision program virtually inaccessible to students needing financial aid to a nonbinding early action program earlier this year. It is also why Yale is correct in supporting the University of Michigan’s discriminatory admissions policy.

In its endorsement of Michigan’s policy, the Yale administration has affirmed the notion that there needs to be something in place to quantify the practically unquantifiable: the circumstances and disadvantages of an individual applicant’s life that make impossible the high SAT score and 4.0-give-or-take grade point average that usually warrant admission.

The ultimate end of affirmative action is not diversity for its own sake but more effectively calibrated scales, which would overcome socioeconomic discrepancies and admit the truly exceptional student irrespective of his or her family’s ability to pay for college or college preparation. Yale’s and to an extent Michigan’s current methods err by putting the highest premium on racial diversity. While prospective students should not be asked to check off a box indicating their parents’ income on college applications as they are asked now to check one indicating their ethnic background, admissions officers and administrators should consider socioeconomic diversity their priority. Student bodies would be richest in variety and universities would benefit most if recruiters concentrated most seriously on making things fair for the financially disadvantaged.

The Bollinger cases present the first major legal challenge to affirmative action since 1978. Because of a policy similar in effect to Michigan’s, Yale has a student body that is more racially, economically and geographically diverse than it would be without discriminatory admissions. But to say the world with affirmative action is better than the world without and then to leave it at that is to ignore the serious limitations of a highly problematic system.