Meritocracy still needed in college admissions

I try to be open to views that contradict what I’ve learned from teaching in both high school and in university.  But the No. 1 reason given for opposing meritocracy today totally flies in the face of reality (“Goodbye Meritocracy, Hello …What?” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Apr. 20).

The argument is that meritocracy is rigged against the lower and middle classes.  Therefore, reformers want to give greater weight to non-cognitive factors such as extracurricular activities, life experiences and ethnic backgrounds than to innate intelligence and academic performance.

I don’t deny that non-cognitive factors are important, but they are no substitute.  The consensus is that it takes an IQ of about 115 to handle college-level work.  By admitting applicants who don’t possess such wherewithal, we set young people up for failure.  We talk about the importance of self-esteem.  How is their self-esteem improved when they find out they can’t do the rigorous work required?


still maintain that the importance of a four-year degree is blown way out of proportion.  People are not equal in talents and interests. Why do we persist in encouraging all students to go to college regardless of their aptitude or inclination?  I think we do a terrible disservice to the young by not according vocational education the respect it deserves.

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4 Replies to “Meritocracy still needed in college admissions”

  1. High-SES applicants definitely have an advantage over middle and low SES applicants vis-a-vis GPA and SAT scores. On average, the high-SES applicant will have higher GPA/SAT scores than the middle-SES or low-SES applicant.

    The tough question is — should this matter to the college admissions decision-makers and, if so, how much should it matter.

    Valid arguments on most sides of these issues — largely because a college will usually/always have more than one institutional goal and hence conflicting objectives in selecting applicants. To the extent that a college makes $ from its football program and to the extent that the college relies on that football $ to finance its continued operation, the college will have the institutional goal of fielding a good football team and hence selecting very talented football players will be a rational/important objective, so important an objective as to rationally eliminate consideration of all other factors in making the admissions decision re the most talented football player applicants.

    A similar analysis applies re a college’s giving great weight to the likelihood that a given applicant’s family will eventually donate millions to the college if the college accepts the applicant.

    It’s simply unrealistic to expect a college to focus exclusively on applicants’ academic credentials. Likewise, it’s unrealistic to expect a college to grant admission via a lottery system. Either approach would frustrate real-world institutional goals for most colleges.

    And, the arguments regarding any specific admission criteria are themselves often complicated. Assuming that a college wants to give X weight to academic ability/potential, how about the low-SES applicant with a 3.8 GPA and 1500 SAT vs. the high-SES applicant with the same GPA and SAT? Who has the greater academic ability/potential? Presumably, the low-SES applicant who has probably not yet reached his/her potential due to the handicap of growing up in a low-SES family. But, then, how much benefit should the college give to the low-SES applicant for this reason — how about 3.6 GPA/1475 SAT? At what point should the college conclude that the high-SES applicant with the 3.8 GPA/1500 SAT has the greater ability/potential?

    No easy answers — other than perhaps rejecting the most extreme positions in the debate.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Non-cognitive factors are important in determining who is admitted, but they are no substitute for IQ. We see this constantly in the number of students who drop out of college when they realize they can’t handle rigorous academic work. Their grit is not enough. Yet we persist in assuming that everyone is college material. What about giving vocational education the respect it deserves?


  3. Agree completely re the need for increased emphasis on vocational education.

    Re IQ/college admissions — My argument here is that a college as an institution has multiple objectives, each of which is more or less legitimate in most people’s eyes. When a college makes admissions decisions, the college will rationally take its various objectives into consideration. Doubt that any college has top-notch academic scholarship as its sole objective and makes its admissions decisions based solely on academic ability/GPA/SAT/IQ. If it did, it probably would run into financial problems since it would ultimately have trouble attracting large $ donations from rich alumni + would not make $ from sports + would have problems with getting federal grant $ for research due to the fact that it enrolled very few minorities/low-income students + might even have trouble attracting the super-strong academic applicants due to the perceived geeky nature of its student body.

    Having said all that, I agree that colleges usually give too much weight to non-academic-ability/achievement factors in making admissions decisions.


  4. Labor Lawyer: You are right that colleges would have a hard time operating if they limited admissions only to those who were academic superstars. But they are also under fire today for the high dropout rates of students who were admitted despite lacking the wherewithal for handling rigorous college courses.


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