Opinion: How Merit-Based College Admissions Became So Unfair

"The Brookings Institution’s Richard V. Reeves, writing in the Chronicle Review, says that colleges and universities, partly because of the complexity of the admission process, are 'perpetuating class divisions across generations' as America develops what the Economist calls a 'hereditary meritocracy.' It is, however, difficult to see how something like this can be avoided. Or why it should be," George F. Will writes in an opinion article for The Washington Post. 

"Also in the Review, Wilfred M. McClay of the University of Oklahoma decries higher education’s 'dysfunctional devotion to meritocracy,' which he says is subverting the ideal that one’s life prospects should not be substantially predictable from facts about one’s family. Meritocracy, 'while highly democratic in its intentions, has turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results' because of 'the steep decline of opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation.' Entrance into that circle often is substantially determined by higher education, especially at elite institutions. At two premier public universities, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, the percentages of students from the bottom 60 percent of households ranked by earnings (17 and 15 percent, respectively) are comparable to the percentages at Yale and Princeton universities (16 and 14, respectively).

In 'A Theory of Justice,' the 20th century’s most influential American treatise on political philosophy, John Rawls argued that 'inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved.' So, social benefits accruing to individuals because of such endowments are justified only if the prospering of the fortunate also improves the lot of the less fortunate. And Rawls’s capacious conception of what counts as a 'natural' endowment included advantages resulting from nurturing families. But as sociologist Daniel Bell warned in 1972, 'There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through the use of influence or simply by the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.'"

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Publication Date: 1/12/2018

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