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Meritocracy and the Harvard Admissions Trial

Is the problem with college admissions that the meritocracy is broken, or that it’s working just fine?

By William A. McConnell, Contributing Opinion Writer
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

The Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case was widely seen as a testing ground for the American concept of equal opportunity, and the American principles of justice and fairness therein. By ruling in favor of Harvard and its race-conscious admissions policies, Judge Allison D. Burroughs and our legal system seem to have emphatically affirmed these principles.

But if the meritocracy is working, why does it still feel as if the system is not? The tensions surfacing in the SFFA lawsuit are merely part of a larger frustration with the role of college admissions in our society. To many people, the justice proclaimed in the verdict feels illusory.

The disconnect lies in a cultural confusion of the notions of fairness and merit.

In a meritocracy, power and privilege are awarded on the basis of performance and ability. But performance and ability are always qualified by a predetermined set of goals. A doctor merits a role as a doctor because she can effectively advance the goal of health, and a quarterback earns a starting position because he can effectively advance the football down the field.

In college admissions, Harvard’s predetermined goals can be read off its mission statement: to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society...through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” An applicant merits admission based on their ability to advance these goals — for instance, through their race as it pertains to Harvard’s interest in developing a diverse learning environment.

Harvard’s admissions process asks whether an applicant will further its educational goals. It does not ask, at a more basic level, if students deserve admission in the sense of whether or not, given their inherited circumstances, they have made the most of the hand they were dealt. The justice promoted by a meritocracy is only in service of the ends for which the meritocracy works.

Colleges in one sense work towards their own educational aims. Yet as hall passes to the upper echelons of the job market, colleges, including Harvard, also work for the implicit aims of our society. A Harvard acceptance signals merit for the role of a Harvard student, but will also be the first thing on the resume of every student here for the rest of their life.

Thus colleges are unwilling mediators in the translation of natal luck into future well-being. Through the admissions process, differences caused by social and natural luck are solidified into significant social stratifications. Your parents’ income and education, along with your race and your legacy status, will play major causal roles in determining whether or not you get into Harvard. So will your genetic aptitude, athletic ability, and inherited personality traits.

If we are to take the concerns manifested in the SFFA lawsuit seriously (distancing these concerns, for a moment, from institutional concerns with SFFA itself), we need to take another look at college admissions not under the limiting gaze of meritocracy, but under the more comprehensive focus of fairness. Something is wrong with a system, meritocratic or otherwise, where we funnel 18 year old kids into different walks of life largely on the basis of innumerable factors out of their control.

How do we approach this broken system? For a start, we can dramatically reduce the differences in social luck over the first 18 years of children’s lives. We can prioritize closing the gap between public and private education so that less privileged upbringings do not render applicants less deserving of higher education. We can listen to the mounting body of research suggesting the importance of early child care and make it more accessible and effective. We can support higher education institutions moving away from legacy admissions. We can continue to identify and remedy racial injustices throughout society.

We also need to remove colleges from their current role as gatekeepers of economic mobility. For one, this isn’t even efficient. Many jobs don’t require a liberal arts education. Bolstering the prevalence of vocational schools and other career-preparatory programs would direct traffic to the job market in a way that more efficiently selects and prepares people for their future roles. Alongside better policies on income inequality, it would also go a long way towards restoring fairness in our system. People would feel like they could find some career calling that both highlights their personal strengths and provides them with a decent standard of living — so that, no matter their natural born abilities, they would have ample opportunities to make the most, or least, of those circumstances as they could. The mania of college admissions and all the pressure on students therein would also dissolve.

The word “meritocracy” was originally used to describe a dystopian society based on the ideals of rewarding intelligence and ability, where power and privilege end up concentrated in the hands of a meritorious elite. It’s time we stop limiting ourselves to thinking about how we can purify such a system and start working to create a just and fair one instead.

William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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