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If We Stop Pretending College Admissions Is A Meritocracy We Can Help More Students

We think of college admissions as a meritocracy:  the students who most deserve it get in. But that’s not actually true at all, according to Tufts University sociologist Natasha Warikoo, who studies college admissions.

“We have to stop acting like you deserve it and you don’t deserve it. It’s not about who deserves it,” she told The Atlantic in a recent interview.  “There are so many more amazing 18-year-olds in our country—deserving, hardworking, ambitious, smart, whatever superlative you want to use—than there is space for them at Harvard, at UNC, at any given school.”

And that doesn’t even take non-traditional students into account, like adults going to college for job training or to start a new chapter in their lives.

But the point Warikoo is making isn’t just that there are more deserving candidates than there are spots— a problem well known in California—it’s that the whole idea of college admissions as a meritocracy is fundamentally wrong.  

“(O)rdinary people treat admissions as, you know, they’re lining people up from best to worst and taking the top ones, and if one of these says they’re not coming, then they take the next person,” she said. “Well, that’s not how it works. They’re fulfilling organizational needs and desires. But somehow, we treat it as a prize – and whoever is most deserving gets in.”

At most colleges, especially very “select” ones, there are a host of competing internal interests influencing who gets admitted. Sports coaches demand places for their recruits; development offices want places for legacy alumni and people attached to big donors; orchestras and bands need to bring musicians in; different departments want new students who are going to fill their rosters. There’s no single standard for what makes a “worthy” student, and it’s fair to ask: what has any of this got to do with merit?

“When we recognize the diverse goals that universities attempt to address through college admissions, it becomes clear that admission is not a certification of individual merit, or deservingness, nor was it ever meant to be,” she said.

Making Our Resources Work For Us

Because we believe college admissions is about “merit” rather than institutional design, we end up using the most resources to support the people who need it least – people who already have access to tutors and test prep and internships and money to support them. Meanwhile, we saddle people who have few resources with massive debt.

In fact, putting our educational resources to work supporting the people who need them most gets the most return on investment for society as a whole.  Research shows that when traditionally disenfranchised people have access to good education and economic opportunities the economy grows for everyone.

Similarly, we know that community colleges are  among the most effective drivers of social mobility and economic growth. As former California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley often said, “We take the top 100% of students.” Even non-degree programs (and increasingly, especially non-degree programs) can have a significant impact on someone’s life and career, if they are accessible.  

In fact, a lack of accessible education at the community college level is putting America on the brink of a job training crisis, with too few qualified workers to fill vital jobs. We even know that simply having a public college in a community enhances its economic outcomes for residents

Put it all together and it’s very clear: spending money to keep colleges elite and “meritocratic” actually slows growth and hurts the economy. Colleges can be “meritocratic” and keep people out, or they can be helpful to everyone.  

As Warikoo puts it: “I keep coming back to the question of: What are we trying to do here? Our spending in the U.S. on higher education is regressive. The most elite colleges accept students who are the highest achieving and most resourced. But who needs the most support? When you look at what community colleges are doing in terms of social mobility, they blow places like Harvard and Tufts out of the water. Colleges should think much more about the role they want to play in our society, and how they should align admissions to those goals.”

At Calbright, we believe that everyone deserves the education they need. That’s why we accept every Californian over 18 with a high school degree or equivalent. Gatekeeping education doesn’t help anyone. 

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