Is meritocracy in higher education the goal?

Discussing Harvard’s admission practices, Jordan Weissman of Slate writes, ”Perhaps it’s time for Harvard to dial back those advantages a bit. It would be nice if our so-called meritocracy were at least a little bit more meritocratic.” Meritocracy, as a word, is simple to define – not even requiring a dictionary or any research. Examining the word, merit generally means based on accomplishments or abilities, and not criteria one has no control over. This presents a tricky situation when looking at college admissions – particularly as it relates to the consideration of race. Considering race in admissions is absolutely necessary to combat centuries of racism and discrimination in admissions in the higher education world. But can there be a true meritocracy in higher education if race is considered as a factor? Probably not. Which is likely why Weissman did not speak in absolutes when he asked for things the be a “little bit more meritocratic.” It is clear that a true meritocracy, that only considers abilities and measures that colleges value, would likely not serve underrepresented racial demographics very well – though by no fault of their own. As stated in, The Real Problem With The SAT, published in The Atlantic, “as family income increases, so do scores on the exam. Between the poorest and richest students, there’s a 400-point gap.” Several other assigned readings for this week clearly indicate that the privilege associated with relative wealth leads to markedly higher SAT scores – which, in turn, directly impacts admissions to elite schools. Wealth is probably a better indicator of performance on the SAT than race, but in America, Black and brown students are disproportionately adversely affected by poverty as it relates to their educational attainment, making them far less likely to achieve the results that would appeal to elite schools. So, a meritocracy likely will not be realized, but since the elite higher education landscape has not been a meritocracy for so long, it should be ok with settling for the next best option.

3 thoughts on “Is meritocracy in higher education the goal?

  1. Matt Brim

    Your final sentence pushes me ahead to one of the readings for next week, the introduction to Slavery in the University. That short reading will add a deeply historical layer to the notion of meritocracy in higher ed. It convincingly demonstrates that elite education was never based on meritocracy, in fact quite the opposite. So your sense that we ought to consider “the next best option” leads me to wonder whether there was ever a “first good option” in the politics of college admission?

  2. Katina Rogers (she/her)

    After this week’s readings I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “opportunity hoarding,” and the ways that it often masquerades as meritocracy. That illusion of neutrality is, in my mind, what makes things like standardized test scores so problematic—there is a sense that things that can be quantified are objective. And yet we know that a student sitting down to take the SAT is not just a mind and a pencil, but a person with a particular family context and lived experience and so on. More broadly though, can meritocracy be possible if we collectively have different values and different ideas of success? It seems to me that it hinges on having a linear way of measuring. Is there a different way to imagine building a cohort of students, for instance?

  3. Eve Bromberg (She/her/hers)

    Hi Troy,

    I hope you’ll speak about some of these points tonight– specifically, what is the next best thing? Diversity and a lower standard of excellence– is that a necessary trade-off? Does the current standard of excellence do much for the future of higher ed?

    Interested to hear your thoughts in more detail!


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