Get real about meritocracy

Whenever the subject is education, you can be sure that the issue will be equality, whether in the form of opportunities, outcomes, or both.  Its latest version is consumed by the umbrella term “meritocracy” (“American Universities Must Choose: Do They Want to Be Equal or Elite?”  Time, Sep. 12.)

I’m going to restrict my comments in today’s column to higher education, although my views have relevance as well to K-12.  I don’t think it’s possible for colleges and universities to be simultaneously equal and elite. Until fairly recently, they have had no trouble being seen as elite.  For example, prep schools have always paved the way for their graduates to have a leg up for entrance into college.  That was their primary purpose.

But today, prep schools, as well as colleges and universities, are under attack for their exclusivity.  In other words, they are not democratic enough.  The fact that they differentiate in their admissions is considered unfair.  Yet there will always be unequal outcomes even if there are equal opportunities because people are by their very nature different.  Some are inherently smarter and willing to work harder.  Some make better choices than others.

I also don’t buy the argument that poverty is the No. 1 cause of unequal outcomes.  Yes, it plays an important role, but it is not an absolute determinant as reformers claim.  For example, Asian students continue to excel academically even when they come from low-income families.  How to explain that?  Is it their culture?

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2 Replies to “Get real about meritocracy”

  1. I’m waiting for the NCAA to require that the racial/ethnic make-up of a Division I football or basketball team roughly reflect the racial/ethnic make-up of the college’s student body.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I’ve made the same point before and have yet to receive a convincing answer. The usual response is that athletics are different from academics because those who make the cut in the former are simply better players. When I ask how do we know that, they reply because they perform better on the field. Well, don’t students who perform better on objective tests also deserve the same regard?


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