College Admissions and the Fallacy of Meritocracy

by Emily Chang and Suzanne Klahr

The recent indictment of 50 affluent parents, test administrators, and coaches from elite schools exposes the hypocrisy our nation holds about a sacred yet illusory concept: Meritocracy.

For decades, those of us who have worked closely with under-resourced high school students, most of them Black and Latino, have seen them overcome overwhelming odds to get to college. Without resources, they have figured out which classes to enroll in, taken the SAT and ACT without private tutoring, applied to colleges they could not afford to visit before they arrived on campus for their first day of classes and worked full time in high school and college to support their families. The hardship many faced on their path to higher education would bring those young people who have been sheltered and privileged to their knees.

Ana — a student we met through BUILD, a non-profit college advancement program for low-income students — worked full-time while in high school as a night dishwasher in a restaurant. She would come home after 1:00 am and do her homework in the bathroom so the light would not wake her mother and siblings who all lived in one room. She would then wake up 5 hours later, get her siblings fed, dressed and off to school before starting her own day. She did this every day for all four years through her senior year. When she got to her dream four-year college, she ran out of money and had to drop-out to continue supporting her family.

However, we live in a different world from the one in which BUILD works — a world where at social events we hear comments from affluent parents about how “some black kid took my son’s spot at Harvard and I am so tired of affirmative action.” Those parents are not tired of the generations of affirmative action for the wealthy from “legacy” students or a bump up in admissions bartered for the family funding of a dormitory. Those who buy into our nation as a meritocracy fail to recognize it as a fallacy and that a true meritocracy is impossible to achieve.

The concept that only the best rise to the top based on merit alone dates back to ancient China, as detailed in the book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. The term “meritocracy” however didn’t enter our lexicon until the 1950s when the British sociologist Michael Young used it to warn of a disturbing trend: Wealthy, privileged and educated elite were starting to claim their success was justified by their wealth, privilege and education. He meant for the embrace of meritocracy to foreshadow a dangerous sort of dystopia. Instead, it became a go-to phrase to describe a sort of utopia, a societal ideal, from Silicon Valley to the speeches of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a recent interview with Bloomberg Television, former Prime Minister Blair says he no longer uses the term “meritocracy” and understands its flaws. “It’s got a very specific meaning in the British context which is to liberate you from the class system,” Blair said, “But if you translate it in a broader way then you go back to the meritocratic idea that is now more of a right-wing idea that it’s up to you to succeed and if you fail then tough luck on you, which is never what I meant.”
 
 Mr. Blair is rightly pointing out that success, no matter how you define it, is influenced by access to opportunity. Similarly, lack of success can be directly correlated to lack of opportunity. Meritocracy, as Young accurately predicted, has only created a new kind of social stratification, which is, in this case, exploited in the college admissions process by wealthy parents.

Perhaps in silos in the country meritocracy is stronger. General Colin Powell has spoken of the military as the last great meritocracy. But, based on at accounts from females in the military, women and people of color still face profound bias when they serve.

Clearly, who gets into what college is often based on privilege, even without cheating the system or breaking the law. Our own paths to the Ivy League involved competitive private schools, tutors who helped us improve our test scores (in the standard amount of allotted time), parents who prioritized and paid for it, and the ability to take Advanced Placement courses that colleges demanded. We were able to visit all of the colleges ahead of time, and met with alums in our network who could write us recommendations. We both worked in high school, but our earnings were simply extra pocket money, not money needed to support our families. Yes, we both worked hard in school — we were not legacy students and our parents did not have buildings or quads in their names — but we both had access to a degree of wealth, privilege, and education.

BUILD students and others like them have a completely different high school experience. While many such college access programs pride themselves on their outcomes, there are countless examples of the system working against them.

Ana merited a college degree and a different ending but did not have the resources or networks to obtain one. She is an exceptional young woman but her story is hardly the exception — we see this inequity daily. Where would Ana be if her parents could have afforded the luxuries we had? Hopefully, this college admissions scandal has shined a light on the deep injustices in our nation and opened a dialogue that will allow more people to recognize that the inequity in opportunity experienced by students like Ana adversely affect all of our futures.

Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, Esq. founded www.BUILD.org in 1999 and served as its CEO until 2018. She currently teaches Social Entrepreneurship at Harvard Law School and advises companies, non-profits and CEOs on impact and growth strategies. Emily Chang is the anchor and executive producer of Bloomberg Technology on Bloomberg Television and the author of Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. Both authors serve proudly on the board of directors at BUILD.