Ritual Meritocracy

January 8, 2008

In today’s on-line/January 11’s print issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitchell Stevens writes in an op-ed piece on the “admissions race that’s already won”, calling the annual admissions frenzy at selective colleges “essentially ceremonial — an elaborate national ritual of just desserts.” He writes:

The fact that the fates of particular applicants at particular colleges remain uncertain until the end enables us to believe that the winners earn their victories in a fair game. That is how the anxiety that attends the application season is deceptive: It encourages those who experience it to believe that the outcomes of the process are considerably more uncertain than they actually are.

More perniciously perhaps, the feverishness of each year’s application season allows us to take comfort in modest reforms that mostly only tinker with that process. Some recent fixes at selective institutions — eliminating early decision, making the SAT an optional component of applications, or, a bit more radically, proposals to replace individualized selection with a lottery system for all those applicants who meet some general criteria — will do nothing to change the distribution of opportunity that delivers talented applicants to admissions officers in a markedly class-stratified way.

It would be far better if we turned our reformist energies toward improving educational opportunity earlier in life.

I think about this in the context of Harvard’s recent decision to tap its considerable endowment to provide more financial aid for “middle income”families earning less than $180,000 a year. But to the extent that such announcements do increase the number of applicants at Harvard, admissions will become even more competitive, and students from more “modest” backgrounds will be welcomed at Harvard only to the extent that they look like the children of the wealthy donors who make their presence possible.

Stevens argues that genuine equity in college admissions will be attained when we have high quality preschool for all children, generous funding for college prep resources in low-income school districts, and a public that thinks of the needs of children other than their own. Similary, Peter Sacks cautions that colleges like Harvard are motivated mainly by their rankings in the admissions race for a relatively small pool of hyper-qualified applicants and in the end, have little incentive to substantively increase needs-based financial aid.

As long as so many students attend schools that are so ill-equipped to prepare them for college, Harvard and its peers can have it both ways in the “elaborate national ritual” of admissions: getting credit for seeming to do its part in equalizing opportunity while still serving very few students of modest means.

And to the extent that the parents who usher their children through the frenzied process of admissions do think of other people’s children, they can convince themselves that these other children must certainly have had it easier.

And the pernicious ritual continues.

Thanks to the Eduwonkette for her tip to the Chronicle piece.

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