GPAs, SATs, and the Idea of Meritocracy

Meritocracy – simply put – is just the idea that a reward is based on merit. We’ve been hearing that word thrown around a lot in reference to college admissions. People who hear about colleges not accepting certain students with impressive credentials but who do accept minority students with less impressive credentials get angry because college admissions should be a meritocracy.

The problem with that is that not every one has the same chances to get the same merit. And we are not even talking about things like private schools and extra curriculars. I’m talking the differences in public school systems throughout our country. Or even within some large cities.

Think of two students born in the same large city. One living in the suburbs, one in the housing projects. The middle class kid is zoned for a school that gets a lot of parental support, has honors classes, and free weekend prep courses for the SAT. The other kid is zoned for a school with not enough teachers for the basic classes, much less the honors courses and there’s definitely no SAT prep classes.

So the excellent under-privileged student graduates with a 4.0 and got a 1420 on his SAT. And the suburban kid had a 5.0 because his school offered honors classes and he got a 1500 on his SAT with the help of Saturday prep classes. These differences are JUST BASED ON THE RANGE OF A PUBLIC SCHOOL EDUCATION. This is not even including how the poor kid doesn’t have the resources to build up extracurriculars. We are just talking about their education offered in their city. We’re not even talking about advantages wealth can give you in earning merit in the form of music lessons or private education.

Let’s give up the illusion that college admissions standards based on GPAs and SATs would or could ever be a true meritocracy because the 12 years of public education students around our country receive to get to that point of measure is never equal. I would hope college admissions would not just look at those numbers because there are so many opportunities unavailable to kids in the poor school districts, meaning their numerically lower scores might actually represent greater academic potential because they were able to reach levels of success without the benefits of well-funded public schools.