It is college acceptance season. Thanks to early action and early decision application processes, college acceptance season these days runs from December to April now, a long stretch of agony for high school seniors and their parents. Teenagers around the country wait to find out if they have worked hard enough, done enough activities, written good enough essays, taken enough AP classes, stood out enough in their volunteerism, and on and on. Will they be rewarded by the great American meritocracy by winning admission to the schools of their dreams, or will they learn that they weren’t good enough after all?
This year two news stories have thrown clouds of doubt on the college admissions process: The lawsuit filed by Asian students accusing Harvard of discrimination and the FBI investigation into a massive bribery scandal in which the rich and famous paid enormous sums of money to secure their already privileged children places at selective institutions. These two cases are interesting in that they reveal two dramatically different understandings of the college admissions process. The first reflects a group of students’ belief that college admissions is and should be a pure meritocracy, and the second reflects a group of wealthy parents’ knowledge that it is not.
When I first heard about the FBI investigation, I almost laughed at the statement from the FBI that there will not be a separate admissions process for the rich. Considering all the things wealthy parents do to give their children advantages (expensive prep schools, costly SAT prep courses, college application consultants, private writing coaches to help with essays, phone calls to old pals with influence, promises of big donations, and of course the fact that the parents themselves may have gone to college they hope their children will attend), it’s safe to say there has always been a separate admissions process for the rich. As long as people can afford to provide their kids these helping hands into college, and as long as colleges need to raise massive sums of money every year to give students four years of country club living, there always will be a separate admissions process for the rich. The bribery scandal is an extreme instance, a shocking example of the belief that money can buy you anything, but it is also proof that those parents fully understand that there’s a lot more to a college admissions decision than grades and other qualifications.
For much of our history, no one would have called college admissions a meritocracy. College was only for white men from families at least moderate means. Sure, there were such things as scholarships, but for those in the depths of poverty or living in families with no knowledge of how the college process worked, for those without guides and mentors to light the way to higher ed, college was not even a remote possibility.
Times have changed, and thank goodness for that. More students pursue college educations than ever before, and colleges pride themselves on creating diverse student bodies. That said the job of college admissions officers is literally to discriminate between candidates. These arbiters of the future sit down with let’s say twenty applications all of which meet the criteria for admission. They can only offer acceptance to ten, or five, or two of those applicants, so they consider a whole host of factors beyond transcripts and standardized test scores. Ten or fifteen or eighteen qualified applicants will not be admitted, because, quite simply, not everyone can get in. There are a limited number of spaces and far more people who wish to fill them.
Factors that tip the balance often seem unfair: How much can the student afford to pay in tuition? Is the applicant a legacy student? Does a coach want the student for his or her team? Is this student a member of a racial or ethnic group that has historically been underserved by the institution? None of these factors has to do with the academic qualifications of the candidate, but all are important to the institution. Unless, that is, the college has a need-blind admissions process, or a race-blind admissions process, or does not have competitive athletic programs for which coaches recruit students.
Occasionally I hear students complain that they didn’t get in because they are white. For instance, one former student, let’s call him Joe, was agitated that he was rejected by a competitive school and another student who was black was accepted. If he weren’t white, Joe thought, he would have gotten in, so he considered this an example of reverse racism. Both Joe and the other student were in honors and AP classes. Both were athletes. The black student was just as qualified as Joe, but he got in and Joe didn’t. I asked Joe if he thought that other white students who had similar qualifications had been accepted. He looked puzzled and said that yes, he was sure of it. Then I asked him if he thought it was possible that some white students were even less qualified also got in. He thought about it and after a moment said that yes, in fact, he knew another classmate who was white and had less impressive transcripts and who had been accepted. At this point, he had to concede that the situation was much more complicated than a simple matter of either race or merit.
Is this fair? I guess it depends on your definition of fair. As a teacher, I define fair as each student gets what he or she needs. Not everyone needs to go to a top-25 college. Some people need a small school where they will get individual support and attention. Some people need a big school where they will have room to grow. Some people need the network an alumni association can provide so they can make connections in their profession.
The great mistakes we keep making as a society are thinking that where you are accepted into college is proof of your worth and that where you go to college will determine your success in life. In fact, what matters far more than where you go is what you do when you get there, assuming you avoid charlatan for-profit colleges and institutions that are failing. In addition, we put way too much stock in college rankings, to the point that colleges are gaming the system in ways that detract from their educational missions.
Collectively, we all need to take a breath and put things in perspective here. Rejection from any particular school is not proof your life is over or that you haven’t worked hard or that your hard work was wasted. There are dozens of excellent colleges and universities — go to one and flourish. College admissions may not be a meritocracy, but the only way to build a satisfying life is through your own hard work.