Ethical College Admissions: Meritocracy as Myth

Jim Jump considers the recent debate.

July 31, 2017

Is meritocracy under attack? Is meritocracy a myth? Is the idea of merit in college admission outdated, and should hyperselective institutions select their students using a lottery from among applicants judged as qualified for admission?

Those questions are raised by Joseph Soares, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University, in an article titled “Meritocracy Dismissed.” Soares’s article is one of six responses in the Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies to Natasha Warikoo’s book The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas on Race, Admissions and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.

Warikoo’s book examines attitudes toward race among students at Harvard and Brown Universities and the University of Oxford. According to Soares, one of Warikoo’s conclusions is that racial minorities at Oxford are more likely to see themselves, and be seen by other students, as having succeeded through merit than racial minorities at Harvard and Brown.

Why is that? It is largely due to two fundamental differences between British and American university models. One is cultural, having to do with the degree of involvement in societal issues. Warikoo describes American universities as “socially embedded,” whereas British universities are more likely to be “socially buffered.”

The other is related to admission. Admission to Oxford and other British universities is primarily academic in nature, based on grades and performance on subject-based examinations. The curriculum in Britain provides standardization in comparing applicants. In the United States, admission at competitive colleges is holistic and there is not a common curriculum for comparing candidates from different schools. What provides standardization is testing.

Soares, one of the driving forces in Wake Forest’s decision to become test optional, has long argued that standardized test scores are overvalued. He observes that the American love affair with testing, ignoring evidence that high school grade point average is the most accurate predictor of a student’s success, may impact attitudes toward students who are racial minorities at places like Harvard and Brown. There is a significant gap in average test scores based on race, and if test scores reflect merit, then minority students must have been admitted not through merit but in support of diversity.

Soares’s solution is to end what he calls the “myth of meritocracy.” In her book Warikoo suggests that colleges and universities “scrap the notion of meritocracy altogether” and replace it with an admissions lottery from among those identified as qualified for admission. His variation is a lottery from among those who are in the top 10 percent of their high school class, a plan similar to the one the University of Texas system uses.

There are certainly flaws in Soares’s proposal. He assumes that a top 10 percent plan would increase diversity, and I question that. The affirmative action program utilized by the University of Texas at Austin and challenged in Fisher v. Texas was developed to address perceived weaknesses in the top 10 percent policy, particularly with regard to attracting sufficient diversity. The current model of selective admission gives colleges maximum discretion to achieve diversity and other goals, and that would be lost in a lottery. There is also the small matter that many public schools and most independent schools no longer rank students.

Logistics aside, are Soares and Warikoo right that meritocracy needs to be ended or that there never was really a meritocracy to begin with? Is some sort of lottery a better way to admit a freshman class at elite colleges?

With regard to meritocracy, are we talking “end or mend”? When we talk about meritocracy as a myth, are we saying that college admission should not be based on merit, or are we saying that what often passes for merit is actually privilege in disguise?

I suspect it is the latter. Measures of merit, whether grades or test scores, are certainly at least partly colored by a student’s family situation and socioeconomic background, but that’s a very different proposition than arguing that there is no such thing as merit or that merit is irrelevant.

I think the myth here is not meritocracy but rather selectivity, the idea that admissions officers are social engineers who can make fine distinctions among applicants with precision to “sculpt” a class. But is that the case? Most hyperselective colleges and universities admit that they could enroll a freshman class out of their rejected applicants that would look very similar to the admitted group. Isn’t it much harder to distinguish among applicants at an institution with a 5 percent admit rate than an institution with a 25 percent admit rate?

And is it an admissions office’s job to decide which superbly qualified applicants have more merit? That is at the heart of the argument for random selection.

I made that argument nearly 30 years ago in the first article I ever wrote about college admission, an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article I argued that selective admission is first and foremost a problem in distributive justice, where the goal is allocating a scarce resource fairly. I suggested that admissions officers should determine the pool of qualified candidates, and that the fairest way to select from among that group was through a lottery.

The reaction was interesting. Some of my admission colleagues wondered if it was a joke, a college admissions version of Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal. Others were angered that I would question the belief that college admissions officers were and should be engaged in social engineering. But what was fascinating was the reaction from students at hyperselective institutions. Those who wrote were clear that they wanted to believe that they had gotten in because they were judged as superior to other applicants. Being admitted to Harvard or Princeton or Duke through a lottery wouldn’t have had the same kind of social cachet.

That leads to Soares’s most powerful argument for a lottery. He argues that the current meritocratic process leads to those admitted developing a sense of entitlement. Rather than being grateful for their good fortune, they believe they were admitted because they were better and therefore more deserving than their less fortunate peers. Soares believes a lottery would send a powerful message about the role of randomness in one’s life.

I agree. I wonder what repercussions there are in the classroom and later in life for those who believe they have opportunities because they are better than others. David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest, on the elite college graduates who got the United States into the Vietnam War quagmire, serves as a cautionary tale.

Is meritocracy a myth? We certainly need to parse the difference between merit and privilege, but I’m not ready to accept that we need a merit-free college admissions process.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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