The Myth of the Meritocracy

There is perhaps no institution more socially defining or class bearing than the American university. Earning a college degree significantly improves your lifetime earning abilities and overall prospects. This is why, faced with alarmingly low minority enrollment in higher education, policies of affirmative action were implemented. The goal was to give people who had been historically denied equal access to education a chance to go to college. In turn, universities benefit from having more diverse and vibrant communities with adequate minority representation.

The Supreme Court has, however, been clear that race alone cannot be the sole determinant of admission. Rather, race is simply analyzed as one of many factors, to give colleges the ability and freedom to diversify their campuses. The Supreme Court has ruled that policies like racial quotas are unconstitutional, but that race is still allowed to be considered as one of many factors in college admissions. 

Despite the intended goodwill of affirmative action, the policies are incredibly controversial. Many people claim that entrance into college should be based on achievement, not a factor such as race. Often, those who oppose affirmative action claim that it discriminates on the basis of race and that it should be unconstitutional. The heated debate over affirmative action always springs back up in the Supreme Court and in the states, with some states, like California, having outlawed affirmative action in public universities.

I must say that I would like to agree that college admission should be based on merit alone. It certainly seems fair to say that people should be admitted based on personal achievement. That is, after all, the compelling lure of the American dream– that you can blaze your own path to success through hard work. In such a system, also known as a meritocracy, people would be evaluated on an equal playing field, irrespective of arbitrary factors like race, gender, or family income. In theory, it sounds totally fair.

The problem is, this system of fair evaluation does not, and has never, existed in the United States. It is a myth. We don’t have a meritocracy in college admissions, nor even in the opportunities that underlie college admissions. Race is just one of many evaluating factors that the student has no control over, and that are not based on any sort of merit.

Let’s take a look at the main factors for college admission in the United States, and whether they can be called merit-based, or merely arbitrary. Obviously, a student’s grades play the biggest role in college admissions. However, the National Association for College Admission Counseling states that colleges evaluate many other additional factors:

In order to shape their classes, colleges may consider other factors for admission, including a student’s geographic location (especially for public universities), whether a student is the first in their family to go to college (for access purposes), a student’s race or ethnicity (for diversity purposes), a student’s relation to alumni (for the purposes of development and community-sustenance), and gender (for purposes of reflecting the population).

Analyzing any one of these factors, not just race, illustrates a lack of merit-based evaluation. Additionally, some factors have the possibility of actually disadvantaging historically marginalized groups.

To that end, let’s think about the criteria of legacy admissions, or a student’s relation to alumni. Most colleges give extra preference to students who have family members that attended the school. In some colleges, having a family legacy can dramatically increase a student’s admissions prospects. For example, Harvard University’s admission rate hovers around 5.8%, but that number jumps to an astounding 30% admission rate for legacy students.

What personal merit is there behind someone’s parents or grandparents having attended Harvard? A person is just lucky enough to be born into a well-educated family. The student has earned nothing in order to be a legacy prospect, and yet he/she has a much greater chance of being admitted. The meritocracy myth falters.

Imagine now the grave unfairness that legacy admissions can have against minorities, whose grandparents or family members may have been denied the opportunity to attend college. For much of the 20th century–while certain families were establishing legacies at universities like Harvard– most minorities were denied or restricted access to these same institutions. Although it is likely not any university’s intention, legacy admissions can act similarly as the grandfather clause did for voting, by rewarding a system of past racial privileges.

At schools like the University of Southern California, legacy students are 19% of the incoming Fall 2015 Freshman class, while African-American students total only 7%. If anything is unfair about college admission standards, it’s the fact that education has been, and continues to be, an exclusive club for generations of people.

This is not to say that legacy admissions are harmful, in and of themselves. Rather, it is telling that critics of affirmative action often have no similar complaint lodged at legacy policies. And this is to say nothing about the many other non-merit based admissions factors: athletes who are given preference, or geographic considerations of one location being preferred over another, or even the emphasis on standardized testing, which has long been shown to reflect expensive preparation more than academic prowess.


None of these factors are merit-based entirely, and some, like standardized testing, are a mix of merit and privilege. In fact, you can even make a strong argument that grades themselves are not truly merit-based, when you take into account the privileges of hired tutoring, better resources, and superior schools in more wealthy, and usually whiter, areas. If we want to make college admissions truly merit-based, then affirmative action is not nearly the root of our problems.

The basic point reveals the inherent privileges that exist in society, whether we acknowledge them or not. Removing race from college admissions does not actually remove it from the process, because race continues to be as privilege-bearing as it always has been. Pretending that opportunities are equal for everybody, or that college admission is based only on merit, does not make it true.

The myth of the meritocracy is in denying corrective based policies to minorities while perpetuating other meritless standards that are discriminatory by nature. Fundamentally, a system of fairness does not, and has never, existed. It is okay for us all to admit that people achieve things based partially on privilege. Extending some of that same type of privilege to marginalized groups is a necessary and fair action.

One thought on “The Myth of the Meritocracy

  1. Really agree with everything you are saying here. I think the main problem many people have with affirmative action policies is that they fail to see the aggregate effect of such practices. On an individual level, it is easy for many to feel privileged indignation, even if it is entirely misplaced. I can’t imagine a way, however, to intelligently to dissent from the use of affirmative action when considering the societal ramifications as a means of “leveling the playing field” (for lack of a better term). It doesn’t really take the most in-depth analysis to see that there are structural inequalities that necessitate affirmative action. It seems that (white, privileged) people just stick to their narrow perspectives and make little to no attempt to understand the circumstances of minorities, preferring to just believe that they have earned everything they have. The most important course of action, then, is to teach empathy and perspective, and perhaps the rest will follow.


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