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.

4 thoughts on “GPAs, SATs, and the Idea of Meritocracy

  1. Karen says:

    Or we could discuss how little those test scores really mean in terms of academic success. I know someone whose college counselor told them they should forget about college and consider learning a trade because they had an abysmal ACT score (and it truly was abysmal: 13). This person finished college and went on to earn a master’s degree and doctoral degree (both with 4.0s). Some colleges have even dropped the whole testing requirement for admission.

    But to address your post more directly… how does this work when you’re comparing kids from the same school, similar socioeconomic level, but different ethnicity? Would it still be necessary to give preference to a minority race over white when race is the only difference?

    • Zoot says:

      It’s funny – I was actually going to write about that tomorrow! (And this is specifically to address the value of diversity, not to address the importance of avoiding white supremecy in any environment.) Short version: Diversity in itself has a value in an academic environment. Just like if 10 of your applicants are violin players and one is plays the harp, and admissions team may think, “Well – what new could the harp player introduce to our music department?” In the same way, diversity enhances a collegiate environment in terms of what different experiences from different races and cultures can add to the classroom discussions and experiences.

      Donnie and I discuss this a lot b/c of his career in a very White Male dominated field. I often use the story of the white sorority who wore blackface that one time. If they had had a strong community of women of color who felt comfortable sharing their thoughts, someone would have piped up and said, “That is a TERRIBLE idea…and this is why.” Without diversity of race and experience, we lose those voices to shed light onto situations. And to me, that is a value in a college environment more than anywhere else. So if I were an admissions counselor, I could see adding “value” by creating a diverse campus and therefore weighing value on cultural and racial minorities. Does that make sense?

      • August says:

        Adding value by creating a diverse campus does make complete sense to ME.
        The weighing of value on cultural and racial minorities will not necessarily sit well with those for whom sitting well is consistently difficult as it relates to perceived fairness.

  2. If you haven’t already, watch the MTV documentary, White People (I believe thats the name but it will come up in a search). It is very well done, and it shows that the idea that minority students get preferential admissions is untrue. There are also thousands of scholarships that are not awarded each year because no one applied for them. It is a very eye opening short film.

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