It’s time universities began to think of themselves as producers of value, not arbiters of merit.
It’s admissions season, and across the country, thousands of admissions officers sit in front of screens, reading files full of transcripts, test scores, extracurricular profiles, letters of recommendation, and, of course, essays. I was once one of these officers, spending emotionally exhausting 12-hour days reviewing thousands of applications from Ivy League hopefuls over a span of five months. When I was a new admissions officer, the importance of each application component was drilled into my head. Other factors, like legacy status or whether the student was a person of color, mattered, but those first five elements were key. At first, they seemed reasonable-enough measures of potential to succeed at an elite university. But after I saw how consistently our process created disadvantages for students who are low-income and people of color, my trust in the system faltered.
I soon found myself reading Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The book offers a thorough examination of how our current system of selective college admissions came to be, and it persuaded me to question all the parts of a college application that we take for granted today. I learned that the aspects of college applications that are commonly thought of as most important in promoting inclusion—like the consideration of personal qualities in addition to supposedly objective measures of academic potential—actually first became part of the application as a way to identify and exclude Jewish applicants. That realization seemed to upend the field’s expectation that those same metrics could be used to increase diversity, and helped explain my disappointment when they instead reproduced the status quo.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, MINORITY STUDENTS, AND THE RICH, WHITE COLLEGE APPLICANT: Asian Americans are indeed treated unfairly in admissions, but affirmative action is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other.
In fact, I grew so disappointed that I did something inappropriate: I went on Facebook and vented about an essay from an applicant. (The student in question had used the essay to remind us that they were a legacy and had even had a religious rite performed on campus as an infant.) But I recognize now that the real target of my frustration was, and is, a system where unearned privileges like familial ties have any bearing on one’s likelihood of admission to an institution of higher education.
In my office, there was no good outlet for that frustration; when you spend half your year reading applications, you simply have to believe that you are changing lives for the better. To do your work every day, you have to believe that the way applications are evaluated is more fair than unfair; and that, for all its flaws, the process is still basically a meritocracy. It’s hard to develop a strong critique of selective admissions while you’re still part of the system. Only with distance from the daily grind of reading applications have I gained clarity on what, exactly, struck me as so unfair about the process.
I’m hardly alone in thinking admissions to be unfair. Many observers have decried legacy admissions policies as an impediment to fairness. Others, especially on the right, point the finger at affirmative action, claiming that considering race undermines what is meant to be a meritocratic process. But seldom do higher education administrators or members of the public step back to consider that the foundations on which both of these critiques rest could be fundamentally flawed.
Systemic change is hard, but solutions are possible if we diagnose the true problem: namely, that selective universities and the people who run them operate on a flawed definition of merit that runs counter to their stated mission and goals. To begin addressing this problem, I propose three fixes: hiring more diverse admissions officers, training admissions officers to think more critically about how merit is defined and assessed, and calling on universities to think of merit as something that can be developed in anyone, rather than found only among the elect.
It would behoove us to recall that meritocracy, in its original framing, was a distinctly negative term. Sociologist Michael Young, who coined the word, first used it in a novel about a dystopia where people are sorted on the basis of intelligence test outcomes. Young’s dystopia is, in many ways, our reality, but much of the social critique embedded in his use of meritocracy seems to have been lost in its current usage. Returning to Young’s original framing reminds us that inequality and stratification are built into the very idea of merit and meritocracy. If the goal of elite universities is to sort and stratify, then the system does indeed work. But if the goal is to serve society by reducing inequality, or at least ensuring equality of opportunity, then we need a significant overhaul—and not just of our admissions processes.
Let’s start with how we assess merit. Critics have long noted that our college application process rewards the privilege of those already fortunate enough to go to “good” schools, who have money and time to develop their athletic and intellectual talents. Test scores measure class as much as they do academic aptitude; grade-point averages are as much a measure of what kind of school one attends as they are of how hard one works. Recommendation letters reflect students’ potential, but they also reflect teachers’ biases and counselors’ overburdened caseloads. Extracurricular profiles show as much about parents’ cultural capital as they do about students’ interests. And successful essays are often those that perform particular types of privilege or disadvantage. All of the above should give us pause about the degree of confidence we place in these metrics, which have a veneer of fairness but also quietly work to continue to secure the position of the children of privilege. As we have seen, so long as these constructions of merit remain unchallenged, the children of the elite remain overrepresented—which would likely be the case even without added boosts like legacy admissions policies.
But we are blinkered by old ideas about what merit is, which makes it hard to imagine new ones. As it stands, at many selective universities, the people doing the work of selecting the next elites are elites themselves, steeped in dominant ideas about merit. Although it’s unclear whether this is representative, recent research involving over 300 admissions officers from 174 selective institutions found that nearly half of the admissions officers worked for their alma mater; in my experience, many admissions officers are alumni of peer institutions, if not the particular university they’re working for now.
There are good reasons for this; young alumni know the institution and are often excited about it. But hiring from within such a small pool insulates admissions offices from fresh ideas and attitudes. In a recent study, Michael N. Bastedo and Nicholas A. Bowman found that admissions officers working at their alma mater were more likely to look favorably on wealthier students, whereas members of marginalized groups looked more favorably on low-income applicants. The fact that nearly all my colleagues were alumni of selective universities, and had ourselves been successful in the admissions process, matters. That fact allowed ideas about merit, what an elite university student looks like, and what it takes to be successful at an elite university, to assume the status of taken-for-granted norms, almost always unspoken but nonetheless widely held. It also made it harder to interrogate how we judged students’ merit, because, if we did, we would also call into question the underpinnings of our own senses of deservingness. Were admissions officers at selective schools to come from a broader swath of the population, admissions offices might more readily contest ideas about metrics like the SAT or the application essay at the admissions committee table. In turn, they might challenge the perpetuation of privilege and admit students more representative of the full range of talents the country has to offer.
CONFESSIONS OF A FOR-PROFIT COLLEGE INSPECTOR: Young, broke, and desperate, I worked at the heart of an emerging nationwide scandal in higher education. Here’s what I saw.
I’d like to offer a provocation though: We need to move beyond rehabilitating broken ideas of merit, and instead push for radically new ways of thinking about deservingness. What would it look like if our most well-endowed institutions of higher education viewed their purpose as using their considerable assets in the service of cultivating the best and brightest, as opposed to simply finding them? What if elite universities were viewed as high-quality not because they admit the children of privilege, but because they leverage their immense resources to improve the lives of their students and the world? University leaders thinking this way would not simply constitute a revision of our thinking on merit; they would audaciously re-conceptualize the very mission of our universities, with implications for everything from admissions to pedagogy to the ideal role of higher education in society.
As my first sociology of education professor, Richard Ingersoll, often said, education both reflects and remakes society. Education—plagued by inequality so institutionalized that it’s invisible—reflects some of the most unfair aspects of our social world. But education can also be a vehicle for re-imagining and re-building society, and we should harness that transformative potential.
We could start by hiring and training admissions officers differently, raising a critical awareness of the larger sociopolitical context in which the work of admissions takes place. As it stands, admissions officers are often taught the nuts and bolts of the work, and important information about their schools, but little about the larger forces at work. This lack of training is especially troubling given the relative youth and inexperience of many beginning admissions officers. Teaching admissions officers to contextualize their work historically and socio-politically, however, would drive home the point that universities should work constantly to ensure that our processes are not simply reifying inequality.
We could also re-evaluate our admissions criteria and think carefully about whether they align with our mission. The SAT stands out as perhaps the most obvious metric that has outlived its usefulness. Although it started as a way to increase diversity and make Harvard University more egalitarian, nowadays the SAT is as much a measure of one’s parents’ income as of one’s academic aptitude, and offers hardly more information about college performance than high school grades do. There is little compelling interest in maintaining the use of the SAT, except on the part of the College Board, and of overworked admissions offices who need easy ways to stratify applicants. Are such practical demands reason enough to continue using a tool that is known to favor higher-income children? Were admissions officers to critically assess the metrics on which they evaluate applicants, more universities might find themselves answering this question with a resounding “no.”
Finally, if universities took up this challenge to think of themselves as producers of value, not arbiters of merit, universities could do much more to support marginalized students in applying to college. Accordingly, universities must expand their definitions of merit, and they must also increase their commitment that all students will have the opportunity to prove themselves “meritorious.” Despite what universities say about wanting diverse students, where admissions officers spend their time on the road may not optimally support that goal. One admissions officer quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that she planned her school visits schedule based on which schools had previously sent successful applicants, a strategy that is sure to skew toward elite preparatory schools and public schools in wealthy districts. As an admissions officer, my superiors encouraged me to use the same logic to plan my travel season, and so I spent a great deal of my time on the road at elite boarding schools. These stories are not mere anecdotes, and we need to shift admissions officers’ focus to visiting more underserved schools, and to teaching students how higher education can serve them and enable them to serve their communities, not just selling them on the brand of a particular school. It is crucial that we remember that talent doesn’t only reside in certain zip codes, and that students from all types of schools, given access to high-quality higher education, have the potential to achieve great things.
To be sure, these suggestions are not the only ways to improve selective admissions. At the very least, however, it is my earnest hope that we—higher-education administrators, academics, and the general public—can shift how we talk about admissions, merit, and the mission of elite universities. In commenting on our system of selective admissions, we must focus our critique where it belongs: not on one policy, or one group, but on the very foundations that support our constructions of deservingness.