Flaws in the Meritocracy

by Conor Friedersdorf

An e-mailer writes, "Higher education is the most meritocratic filter we've got to inform decisions about career advancement. Kids who excel at elite colleges are almost all extremely smart and hard working, so what's the problem? These people deserve to make up the ruling class more than anyone else you're going to find."

This statement vastly overestimates the extent to which admissions at elite colleges is a meritocratic process. It's a mindset I encountered a lot during my time on the East Coast, often from people who grew up in homes with two college educated parents and attended high schools where sending students to the Ivy League was a regular occurrence.

I get it. These people worked far harder than their peers in high school, as did I: an academic schedule filled with advanced placement classes, a varsity sport, extracurricular activities like debate or mock trial, countless nights up late finishing an English paper or a calculus problem set, weekend afternoons inside a stuffy room doing SAT practice tests -- after all that, it seems galling to suggest that one's spot at a top tier college wasn't deserved.

Despite my closeness to this culture, however, I'm far enough away to appreciate how misleading it is to imagine that America's high school students enjoy true equality of opportunity, especially given how ultra-competitive it's become to matriculate at an elite school (in other words, even the smallest of advantages can be determinative).

It was less difficult back in 1994, when I started high school in Orange County, California. My parents valued good education enough to pay tuition at Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. My dad has a degree from a four year state school and a mid-career MBA from Pepperdine. My mom did a couple years in interior design school. They both read to me from a young age, helped me with school work, instilled an academic work ethic, and encouraged my early interest in writing. Put another way, I was tremendously blessed relative to 99.9 percent of people in the planet and the vast majority of my fellow Americans.

In hindsight, however, there is all sorts of knowledge that I lacked compared to many of the people I've met who grew up in a household with Ivy League educated parents, or attended a fancy East Coast prep school, or had a parent who worked in academia, or a network of close family friends spanning the elite of every profession. It never occurred to me that I should study for the PSAT because it affected who would get National Merit Scholarships, or that an aspiring writer would do well to consider Princeton in order to study under John McPhee, or Harvard or Yale because they're feeder schools for prestigious publications. I took the SAT once without any prep classes, applied only to schools in California, never knew about a lot of the fellowships some folks applied for upon graduating from college, and felt all the while that I was relatively well-informed.

Please don't mistake this for complaining. I'm tremendously lucky. I chose between Berkeley and Pomona College, got a good education, probably started a rung lower in professional journalism than I would've had I gone east earlier, but likely benefited from the experience. Still, if I had a kid entering high school right now, I could help them game the college admissions system and hasten advancement in the meritocratic elite far more adroitly than my parents could help me -- and orders of magnitude more than most families can help their kids. What I take away from my own story is this: If an upper middle class kid from Orange County, CA is removed enough from the northeast rat race to perceive slight but meaningful information disadvantages in hindsight, what's a lower middle class kid from Reno or a first generation college applicant from Topeka to do?

One answer is that no one should gauge success in life by adopting the measures of the northeast professional elite. Unhappiness lies that way! On the other hand, it's desirable that the people running American institutions better reflect our regional diversity, harness the wisdom contained in different kinds of people, and encompass smart, talented climbers who, for whatever reason, didn't get onto the "meritocratic elite track" at age 14 when the GPA calculations began to matter. As the always sharp Megan McArdle put it, "The Ivy League may represent the cream of a very small segment of incredibly affluent Americans. But there's a lot more cream out there, and it's a pity that American institutional structures seem so apt to exclude it from the mix."

Ross Douthat, a Harvard alum, grapples insightfully with many of these questions. One solution he's always touting is for the Ivy League and other elite colleges to do a better job recruiting devout Christians, lower class whites, ROTC kids, and others who are alienated from the meritocratic elite as currently conceived, despite having a lot to offer. I don't object to his project, but I'm coming from a different place. As an undergrad, I went to school with a lot of kids from the northeast who chose Pomona College in order to flee the culture of the Ivies without giving up on good academics. And in graduate school, I chose New York University despite being admitted to its Ivy League competitor partly because I thought that people like Jay Rosen were doing more interesting work.

The exceptional people I met in both places, and the way those institutions shaped them, leads me to believe that similar troves of people are stashed all over this country, and I'd rather that our elite professional institutions did a better job finding those people -- relying less heavily on the Ivy League as a filter -- as opposed to running a somewhat more diverse group of people through the same old Harvard and Yale acculturation process. Were this the case, a nice secondary effect would be more kids choosing colleges based on the best fit rather than US News and World Report rankings.