Democratizing Success: Why We Need to Change Who Defines Merit in College Admissions

Lily Lamboy
Mar 17, 2019 · 11 min read
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Merit itself is rarely defined neutrally or fairly, but rather in the image of those with power. If we don’t interrogate the process of evaluating merit and examine how this system serves elites, we’ll keep seeing versions of this scandal pop up indefinitely.

This past weekend, a group of students and parents filed a federal lawsuit “seeking class-action status against the University of Southern California, UCLA and other colleges named in this week’s sprawling admissions scandal” arguing that the process used to evaluate them was “warped and rigged by fraud.”

While these litigants are surely correct on one level, they are missing something fundamental: that merit itself is rarely defined neutrally or fairly, but rather in the image of those with power. This is not merely because of the specific problems with how merit is defined today, but rather due to structural problems that stem from who defines it. Until this aspect of college admissions is addressed, then we will keep playing whack-a-mole with various “scandals” until kingdom come.

I am a political philosopher who researches systemic injustice in selective college admissions in the United States. I currently teach a course at Stanford University on the topic of meritocracy. And my reaction to this week’s college admission scandal was a resigned “duh.”

Why? Because this scandal is a logical outgrowth of a college admissions system that promises to admit students purely on the basis of merit, while legitimizing the transmission of intergenerational power via educational pedigree. Until we take this central tension seriously, we won’t be able to understand the root causes of this scandal or identify pathways for transformation.

The problems begin with the very principle of merit-based admission: positions at selective colleges should be given to those who possess the relevant skills and traits to take good advantage of the opportunities that elite colleges provide. Adherence to this principle explains why so many people felt outraged by this week’s events: they believe that spots at schools like Stanford, which confer so much advantage, ought to go to those who deserve them — not those who can pay for them.

Of course, we all know that lower-income students face pervasive, unjust barriers to preparing for, applying to, and affording college, and that wealthy students are much more likely to know about, navigate admission to, and afford prestigious colleges. These “supply-side” facts alone belie the claim that college admission is a meritocratic system. But I find that many people tend to assume that the criteria and systems used to evaluate merit are relatively neutral — it’s merely the disparities in supply-side resources that account for different admissions outcomes.

My research tells a different story. Acknowledging these supply-side injustices, I further argue that colleges contribute to structural inequality because of how they define and evaluate merit in the first place. Colleges set the terms on which students display “merit,” and this in turn creates a system where some are better-positioned to compete than others.

While the advent of merit-based admission has opened doors to many elite colleges previously closed to women, racial minorities, and others, it has also generated steep competition for a relatively small number of spots. Admission opens unimaginable doors in terms of resources, networks, and opportunities, in large part due to the pre-existing connections these schools have to the already-elite.

In a ”winner-take-all” economic system with increasingly fewer positions at the top — positions which confer more and more power each passing year — parents believe they need to set their kids up for success in whatever ways they can. Yet according to the principle of merit, only the meritorious — those with the a “demonstrated record of excellence” or the “greatest potential” — gain admission to elite schools. So in a world that is ostensibly meritocratic, elites parents want to transmit advantage but have to do so “on the basis of merit”, in a way that is justifiable to a broader public. To do that, they must guarantee that their children have “earned” these positions in the eyes of the wider society via educational pedigree.

This helps explain a major puzzles in this week’s scandal: why did wealthy parents, whose kids do not seem to care much about academics, go to such extraordinary lengths to secure admission to highly selective colleges?

Not to guarantee their kids the chance to work in a lab with a world-renowned biologist or to grant them the chance to seriously reflect on their previously-held commitments in an ethics seminar. Instead, it is to legitimize their social status in a world which requires elites to “earn” their place. Given that wealthy kids are given everything they could need to succeed in the college admissions game, many feel it is socially embarrassing to have a kid attend school elsewhere.

This embarrassment reflects a disturbing reality: that kids from these backgrounds feel entitled to attendance at schools like USC or Stanford precisely because they are in fact disproportionately likely to attend. They are pre-positioned to gain admission by demonstrating their merit in ways that are easier to access for the rich. For them, the failure to get accepted is even more painful, because of how easy it should be for them.

What do I mean by this? As competition has grown, so too has the bar for admission. But this ever-rising bar does not track greater capacity, potential, or talent ; rather, it measures one’s ability to demonstrate above-and-beyond merit according to the measurement strategies used by schools. In other words, getting to Stanford doesn’t necessarily mean one has more capacity, talent, or skills than [X % of students who applied]; it often means one has more resources to signal the “right kinds of qualities” that a particular college wants.

Who controls how merit is defined and evaluated?

In my doctoral dissertation at Stanford, Merit-Based Selection and the Demands of Justice, I uncovered a key pattern: that merit itself is constructed and evaluated in ways that favor elites, and that this bias reflects the interests of those who have the power to define and measure merit in the first place.

First of all, colleges tend to emphasize the importance of certain pursuits and accomplishments over others, giving more “points” for excellence in pursuits that are easily accessible to students from resource-rich backgrounds. As sociologist Mitchell Stevens uncovers in his excellent book Creating a Class: College Admission and the Education of Elites, colleges look for demonstrated excellence across standardized test scores, leadership roles in extracurricular activities, certain organized athletic activities, thoughtful time-intensive volunteer work, and academic success in AP courses.

Yet many of these proxies simply cannot measure merit in students from lower-income backgrounds because most lower-income kids do not attend schools with AP offerings, well-funded sports teams, or artistic/non — “essential” extracurricular activities. How can you demonstrate academic excellence in AP coursework when your school has no AP classes? How can you have a leadership role in a club that doesn’t exist? How can you be the best sailor in the country when your school only has two athletic teams total and you don’t live by the ocean?

Not only would a student from a low-income family never have the funds to pay someone to photoshop them into a competitive sailor’s dossier, but an admissions officer wouldn’t even buy it if they did. The kids in this scandal could get away with it because they came from backgrounds where they were presumed competent and excellent; kids from under-resourced schools would have a much harder time manufacturing merit in many of the categories that currently garner an applicant “merit points” such as sailing, horseback riding, and success building a high-tech robot.

Of course, each year a small handful of people from lower-income backgrounds do overcome the odds and gain admission to prestigious schools, but at significantly lower rates than their higher-income peers. This is not because they lack merit; quite the opposite. It is because kids from lower-income backgrounds frequently must work for pay, care for themselves and/or others, and do other activities that, while certainly demonstrative of exceptional character, leadership, and responsibility, do not typically “count” as evidence of merit to admissions officers who are themselves often from traditional “meritocratic” backgrounds. When these experiences are described in a student’s application, they are often packaged not as indicators of merit but as indicators of destitution, reinforcing the narrative that wealthy students get in because they “deserve to” and poor students get in because of efforts to be “more inclusive.”

If we are trying to identify an applicant’s capacity, talent, or potential, then we are doing it wrong. This scandal demonstrates very clearly that we are not using a system that detects merit in all kids, but rather kids from particular backgrounds who can manufacture a presentation of “maximal merit.” Because institutions favor students who have had formal opportunities to compete for trophies and badges, we never find the 17-year-old who solos every weekend in her church but doesn’t even know you can win a prize for singing.

Why do colleges tend to favor students from these backgrounds?

First, elite college alums, trustees, and powerful stakeholders have tremendous influence over how merit is defined and evaluated. Historically, alums and trustees have mounted massive — and successful — campaigns to withhold donations in the face of attempts to reform admissions standards. In the late 1960s, for example, Yale Dean of Admissions Inky Clark attempted to reduce the number of legacy students admitted to Yale, only to face a startling and successful alumnae/i and trustee revolt. By 1970, the Dean was replaced, and by 1974, legacy admission numbers were higher than before the reforms took place. This veto power gives the already-advantaged the ability to shape standards of admission.

Secondly, researchers find that admissions officers tend to select homophilically, or in ways that mirror their own backgrounds and beliefs about merit. For example, those who were excellent at math and robotics but not so interested in English will tend to see the value in a student who is “well-lopsided” in that way. For example, former competitive debaters may place more weight on those who did debate or similar activities rather than working a job or serving on the student council.

This should come as no surprise — we all tend to think the things we are good at and value are important and worth doing. We also tend to be better able to detect “the best” in categories we’re familiar with. Think about music: you are much more likely to enjoy and see the value in a new song that hails from a genre you already like than to understand what’s great about a jazz song when you’ve never listened to jazz.

While homophily is pervasive across evaluation processes, it is extremely pernicious in the case of college selection. Admissions officers typically hail from the schools where they work (or very similar schools) and therefore tend to reproduce their existing biases under the guise of merit. So in the end, the students admitted aren’t necessarily the best students according to some objective standard of merit; they are merely the best according to standards implicitly agreed upon by a group of people working to preserve their own social and cultural ideals.

So what should we do?

Currently, systems for defining and evaluating merit are determined by multiple actors: trustees, college presidents, faculty, and deans of admissions. Yes, the definition and evaluation of merit is contested over time, but the set of players in the contest is are relatively fixed. Put another way: what counts as merit morphs, but the people who define it don’t.

To address this, we need to augment and overhaul the set of people who influence the definition and evaluation of merit. Rather than reproducing existing ideas about merit, the set of people tasked with defining merit should reflect the demographics of the broader set of potential applicants, not just those who are already in the alumnae/i pool.

At the most basic level, we should diversify the set of people who actually read and evaluate applications. But I want to go further than that: we should also diversify the set of actors who make decisions related to how merit is defined and measured in the first place. This might take place on two levels:

First, what traits should we value? Compassion? Collaborative ability? Democratic participation? Academic capability in a given subject? And how should we weight these traits?

Second, once we arrive at which virtues matter most and how to weight them, how should merit be measured in ways that are inclusive of applicants from a broad range of backgrounds? For example, let’s say that we agree that traits such as “leadership,” “collaboration,” “intelligence,” should be factored into an applicant’s evaluation. Even in that case, people still differ drastically in their beliefs about how to identify these traits in others. What makes the sailing captain a better leader than a 17-year-old who has taken care of her three siblings after school every day for four years, all while juggling her own homework and a job on the weekends? Since we tend to gravitate towards those who demonstrate our worth in ways that are familiar to us, we need to recognize the power of homophily and allow a great number of voices, not an unrepresentative slice of alumnae/i and trustees, to determine how merit should be defined and measured.

Finally, we need to drop the idea that being the “very best” makes you more qualified for college than simply demonstrating high potential for growth in a given arena. Any system set up to favor the “very best” is likely to be game-able, and this will in turn tend to benefit those with resources at their disposal. Instead, any student who crosses a reasonable threshold, determined by the diverse “merit” committee described above, should have an equal chance of being admitted.

Of course, at the heart of this debacle is likely the existence of elite schools themselves. Elite schools were set up to serve elites, and this function is baked into their current funding structures. These schools were not created to serve as engines for social mobility but rather as engines to legitimate intergenerational transmissions of power. While schools like USC and Stanford claim to confer special advantages on the most worthy, in truth they tend to confer special advantages on those who are already best positioned to inherit power. So long as we live in a society where a small handful of schools confer so much advantage, everyone — but especially those who are already elite and therefore want to preserve and pass on their advantages — will have the strong incentive and ability to gain admission.

Changing the admissions process at elite colleges is going to be extremely hard, but I do not believe it is impossible. To solve this problem in the longer term, we must work simultaneously along several dimensions.

First, how can we structure institutions of higher education in ways that make them more responsive to democratic — rather than plutocratic — interests?

Second, how can we diversify the set of people who make decisions about what counts as merit and how to identify it in a diverse range of applicants?

And finally, how can we change the stakes attached to gaining admission to elite colleges, both by creating a stronger social safety net for individuals who are not guaranteed a lifetime in the upper-middle class and by opening up jobs, pathways, and other opportunities to those who, for reasons having little to do with their potential or capacity, attended less prestigious schools?

If we focus on these three avenues simultaneously, we may have the chance to create a college admissions scheme where my reaction to someone simply bribing a college for admissions is not simply “duh.”

Dr. Lily Lamboy is a political philosopher at Stanford researching questions of justice that arise in the context of merit-based selection for positions of power. She is currently teaching a class called The Rhetoric of Meritocracy, which focuses on elite college admissions. She can be reached at llamboy@stanford.edu.

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