How Merit-Based College Admissions Became So Unfair

On the campus of UCLA in 2009 (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
The case for nuanced admissions policies, to seek students whose meager family advantages can be augmented by college

During World War I, chemist James Conant was deeply involved in research on what was considered the worst imaginable weapon: poison gas. During World War II, as a science adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, Conant was so central to the development of the atomic bomb that he was at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. His most disruptive act, however, may have come in the interim when, as Harvard’s president, he helped put the university, and the nation, on the path toward a meritocracy by advocating adoption of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

As his granddaughter Jennet Conant explains in her new biography, Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, the Harvard at which he, from a middle-class Dorchester family, matriculated in 1910 was a place of insufferable snobbery and mediocrity, devoted to passing on the inherited privileges of the families whose boys were funneled there from prestigious prep schools. To the consternation of Boston’s Brahmins, Conant became Harvard’s president in 1933 at age 40, hoping that standardized tests for admissions would mitigate the large degree to which enrollments at elite institutions reflected the transmission of family advantages. Ninety-two years after the SAT was first offered in 1926, it seems to have only slightly modified the advantages transmitted.

The Brookings Institution’s Richard V. Reeves, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, says that colleges and universities, partly because of the complexity of the admission process, are “perpetuating class divisions across generations” as America develops what The Economist calls a “hereditary meritocracy.” It is, however, difficult to see how something like this can be avoided. Or why it should be.

Also in the Chronicle, Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Oklahoma decries higher education’s “dysfunctional devotion to meritocracy,” which he says is subverting the ideal that one’s life prospects should not be substantially predictable from facts about one’s family. Meritocracy, “while highly democratic in its intentions, has turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results” because of “the steep decline of opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation.” Entrance into that circle often is substantially determined by higher education, especially at elite institutions. At two premier public universities, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, the percentages of students from the bottom 60 percent of households ranked by earnings (17 and 15 percent, respectively) are comparable to the percentages at Yale and Princeton (16 and 14, respectively).

In A Theory of Justice, the 20th century’s most influential American treatise on political philosophy, John Rawls argued that “inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved.” So, social benefits accruing to individuals because of such endowments are justified only if the prospering of the fortunate also improves the lot of the less fortunate. And Rawls’s capacious conception of what counts as a “natural” endowment included advantages resulting from nurturing families. But as sociologist Daniel Bell warned in 1972, “there can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.”

Actually, the cultural advantages are so salient that the importance of crass influence is diminishing. Furthermore, to the extent that a meritocratic society measures and rewards intelligence, which is to some extent a genetic inheritance, equal opportunity becomes difficult even to define.

With ostensibly objective standards to give individuals momentum toward places high in society’s inevitable hierarchies, those who do not flourish are scientifically stigmatized.

A meritocratic assignment of opportunity by impersonal processes and measurements might seem democratic but it can feel ruthless, and can be embittering: By using ostensibly objective standards to give individuals momentum toward places high in society’s inevitable hierarchies, those who do not flourish are scientifically stigmatized.

And as the acquisition and manipulation of information become increasingly important to social flourishing, life becomes more regressive: The benefits of information accrue disproportionately to those who are already favored by aptitudes, both natural and acquired through family nurturing and education. Add “assortative mating” — well-educated and upwardly mobile strivers’ marrying each other — and society’s cognitive stratification reinforces itself.

Something, however, has to sort people out, and we actually want the gifted and accomplished to ascend to positions that give scope to their talents. Furthermore, we do not want to discourage families from trying to transmit advantages to their children. The challenge is to ameliorate meritocracy’s severity by, among other things, nuanced admissions policies at colleges and universities that seek students whose meager family advantages can be supplemented by the schools.


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