The folly of a collegiate meritocracy

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

When asked why you go to college, or what you hope to get from your degree, you likely wouldn’t say that you want to be among the elite, ruling class of the world – but that is why you’re here.

It’s no wonder, then, the lengths that people will go to in order to be a part of that group. In mid-March, dozens of people were charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for participating in a major college admissions scandal. Celebrities, business leaders, and other wealthy parents committed fraud and bribery in order to get their children into elite universities such as Yale, Stanford, University of Southern California, and Georgetown.

The story has been covered extensively and regularly since it broke. Mostly, the coverage has focused on the obscene amounts of money (upwards of $500,000) spent to rig the admissions process, and the B-list celebrities who desperately shelled out the cash so that their image and that of their children’s could live up to the standards of their station.

But who cares about Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman and their desperate attempts to make their children into something they aren’t? That’s not important in the big picture. The scandal is important insofar as it illuminates the real issues with the admissions process at American colleges. It’s a scam, but only sometimes literally. The much more sinister scam underlying college admissions is the folly that there is some sort of collegiate meritocracy, where only the best and brightest advance to the land of ivy based on their hard work and merit alone. What a bunch of crock.

The system has never worked that way. Case in point? Half of Sewanee’s student body couldn’t even attend the school until 1969. Whatever founding you start your calculations from, that’s 100 years on one side of 1969, and not nearly as many on the other. For most of the country’s history, particularly in the South, it didn’t matter how hard Black Americans and women worked, or how well they did on some standardized test, or how many extracurriculars they racked up. They simply weren’t given the ability to attend the nation’s best colleges.

The historian Craig Steven Wilder, writing about early American colleges and their ties to slavery, says that colleges and universities were “akin to armories and forts,” in that they furthered the political and cultural mission of the societies in which they existed. This idea that the purpose of a university is to educate a diverse body according to ability is extremely new, and just a refashioning of the established order.

The elite schools make a big show of diversity and inclusion, and while its true that America’s colleges look much different than they did 50 or 100 years ago, that doesn’t mean that the fix isn’t in.

Harvard has a $39 billion endowment and could easily educate many times the number of undergraduates it currently does. But why don’t they? Why don’t they take more of those close-call applicants, those students with perfect SATs who founded a nonprofit and ran 12 marathons? Because they don’t want to expand the franchise. Money and power get you into these colleges, and money and power is what you get from them. It’s elite because it’s exclusive. I don’t know what Jared Kushner or Malia Obama got on their SATs, but I do know it didn’t matter.

Aside from the obvious factors of money and influence that get you into elite colleges, the more damning evidence to a supposed collegiate meritocracy is in the ways in which those with more resources, money, and education can game the admissions system legally.

In my home state of Kentucky, every student takes the ACT in their junior year free-of-charge from the state. If you want to take it again – as you are incentivized to, because you can just report your best score – you’re on the hook for $50. Take it again, another $50, and so on. Though the ACT offers conditional fee waivers, even if low-income students took advantage of that opportunity, they will still likely perform worse than their more well-off peers.

According to the ACT’s official website, in 2012, students coming from families that made more than $80,000/year had an average score of 23.4 out of 36. Students coming from families that made less than $80,000/year had an average score of 19.8. That’s a 3.5 point difference, which could mean tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

It’s not all about merit. Students from wealthier backgrounds can afford to take outrageously expensive ACT prep classes, take the test multiple times, and already have the structures in place that allow them to succeed. Kids from families who make more than 80k don’t just ‘work harder.’ There are obvious inequities in the system.

And that’s not to mention that wealthier families can invest more money into their child’s extracurriculars, afford to send them to better secondary schools, and hire private tutors. Higher-income students also have the importance of college hammered into them from a young age, when a just as ‘smart’ lower-income student may not see the necessity, or may not know how to get there. The points that I have raised here only begin to scratch the surface of the problem.

I’m writing this as a student at Sewanee. I know people who go to Harvard, and I know people who go to Eastern Kentucky University. If there’s a gap between us, it’s not as big as the ‘elite’ colleges may have you think.

One comment

  1. Relevant opinion piece.
    “They simply weren’t given the ability to attend the nation’s best colleges.” I would offer this should read differently: “They simply weren’t allowed to attend the nation’s best colleges.” To your point, a lack of ability didn’t prevent admission, institutional racism did.

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