What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain
University Definitions of Merit
- Would you say Oxford (Harvard/Brown) is a meritocracy in terms of its admissions? In what ways? In what ways is it not?
- Less than 1% of Oxford students are Black, but 2% of Britain’s population is Black. How do you explain this difference? Do you think it is a problem? Should the university do anything about it? If so, what?a. Fifteen percent of Harvard students (14% of Brown students) are Black or Latino, but 28% of the United States population is Black or Latino …10
- Should university admissions consider racial or ethnic background when deciding whether to admit students to Oxford (Harvard/Brown)? What about school type (state school versus private school graduates)? Social class?
3.1. United States: Calibrated, Collective Merit with Attention to Diversity
“What needs to be considered in your admission is [whether] you’ve made the most of the opportunities that you’ve had.... And, in that sense, if you go to a private school that maybe is, like, really rich and, like, really great education… and you have somebody who went to a public school that maybe didn’t have as much money, but they took huge, full advantage of the opportunities that they had there. And, like, they really, like, milked it for all it was worth, and, the person from the private school wasn’t like that, [then] the person from the public school should get it.”
As with many other nontraditional students at these elite universities, Naomi used herself as evidence that Harvard’s admissions is meritocratic:“I think what you do with what you’re given is how Harvard should judge you. Like, if you had a very hard life but you did-let’s say got A’s and B’s instead of straight A’s but you had to work, like, twenty extra hours a week than another kid. Then I think that speaks a lot more than if you got straight A’s, because you had to provide for your family or help provide for them. So I think it should be taken into account.”
Naomi grew up in rural New England with parents who both lack college degrees. Given that she did not attend an elite high school she feels confident that the university does not privilege graduates of elite schools only. Instead, she seems satisfied with the calibration of merit according to the resources applicants have had in high school.“I feel like how driven you were and how hard you worked and what good you did in high school, where you were, and the situation you were in, is how they accept people, not necessarily if you went to the best high school in the world. I certainly didn’t.”
Similarly, in a section on Frequently Asked Questions, Brown’s Admissions office tells prospective students that“We are vitally interested in whether or not applicants have taken full advantage of their educational opportunities, whatever they might have been. If so, they have a much better chance of maximizing the use of Harvard’s resources.”
Many students seem to have encountered and internalized this language, whether through their own preparation for college applications, as rearticulated by high school counselors and college administrators they have encountered, or through experiences and conversations on campus.“While we do consider characteristics such as a high school's level of academic offerings and rigor, we choose to concentrate on how well a student has used the resources available to him or her. We do not start with the assumption that students from a certain school are better candidates than those from another school.”
Karen spoke specifically about diverse forms of merit outside of academic merit: “I think that many people have merits that are different than intellectual—than academic merits. And I think that’s a good thing that those merits are valued.”“I think if Harvard didn’t have any of the buildings or any of the beautiful scenery that it would still be just as great if it had the same people, because diversity is really how you learn here. You can take as many classes as you want but your peers are your best teachers.”
Jack contrasts his friend with piano composition and performance skills to “a science fair winner,” presumably a more academic candidate, to demonstrate the diverse forms of talent surrounding him at Brown.“Everyone I’ve met here has at least one thing that makes them who they are, and very rarely is it actually [that] they were a science fair winner or… The example I talk about is my friend B — American-Korean. He is the biggest slacker maybe I’ve ever met in my entire life… [But] he is gifted as a composer, as a pianist… To me that’s just one of the many people that have… one unique thing that makes them who they are, on top of good grades, good SAT scores, whatever.”
“I think before I applied, I thought I didn’t like [the fact that] it’s really easy for…recruited athletes … I’ve had issues with that. Now that I’m here, I don’t have those issues. Because I see, like I love going to the football games. It’s fun. It’s part of student life… I used to think that … having athletes who are quote unquote “less qualified,”—I no longer view them as less qualified. I view them as qualified in a different way.”
Brown University’s website employs very similar language: “Throughout our long history of encouraging diversity, we have learned that it is this dynamic mix of individuals that makes for the most fascinating and productive undergraduate community,” (Brown University Office of Admission). As with language on calibrating evaluations of merit, students seem to have internalized Harvard and Brown’s language of the importance of a diverse student body, for its contribution to the collective merit of a cohort, thus enhancing the college experience.“Personal qualities and character provide the foundation upon which each admission rests. Harvard alumni/ae often report that the education they received from fellow classmates was a critically important component of their college experience. The education that takes place between roommates, in dining halls, classrooms, research groups, extracurricular activities, and in Harvard’s residential houses depends on selecting students who will reach out to others. The admissions committee, therefore, takes great care to attempt to identify students who will be outstanding “educators,” students who will inspire fellow classmates and professors, (Fitzsimmons 2009a).”
Orin compared being a racial minority to being a talented pianist: “[Ethnic diversity] adds as much to the class as somebody who is a world-class piano player, and… it’s just a different sort of diversity to add.” In other words, all kinds of diversity, including racial diversity and diversity of talents, are important for the student body.“I didn’t think [admissions should consider race or ethnicity] before I got here. And I think so now because I definitely think… I had a better experience because they provided me with insight that I otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“My father is very against affirmative action … And then coming here, I really have a lot more respect for multiculturalism. As far as diversity goes, when people said, “Brown has a lot of diversity,” I didn’t really care about that. And since I’ve been here, I think it’s really important. Because I realize like how incredibly White my town was. Like every single one of my friends at home is White. And I like never even thought about it … And I think that actually experiencing other cultures as opposed to experiencing whatever passes for multiculturalism in like your all White little preschool, has actually been influential to me.”
3.2. Scratching the Surface: US Critiques
Katherine frames her discussion of legacy admissions preferences in the language of a diverse cohort and contributions to the campus community. That is, she uses the language of collective merit, described above, to evaluate whether Brown should consider family connections in admissions.“The legacy thing is the one thing that I have a little bit more of a problem with, because I don’t see how being a legacy contributes to the campus community. I see how, like, athletic ability contributes to the community, musical ability, being of a certain cultural background—I think those all have a lot to bring to the table and can really enhance the community and enrich it. I don’t really see why your mom having been a Harvard student brings anything to the table.”
Alex frames his critique through the calibration of merit, and disagrees that race is a mechanism of disadvantage apart from class. Like Alex, Jean, and Katherine, most students who expressed any disagreement with university admissions did so through the collective merit and calibration frames.“I think they should consider socioeconomic background and the difficulties that people have. Like, if I, a White kid, had had the same kind of upbringing with the parents of the same income level as a Black kid, I don’t think he should have an advantage over me. I know statistically if you’re from minority groups you might be more likely to have a [low] socioeconomic background, but I think the socioeconomic background is the key thing, not what your ethnic makeup is.”
Jeremy evaluates the results of the process, and declares it wildly unequal, given the percentages of wealthy, legacy, and private school kids among his peers. In doing so, Jeremy emphasizes equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, an emphasis unpopular in the United States for reducing class or race inequality (Schuman et al. 1997). His perspective was rare on campus as well.“…an institution that exists to perpetuate the class structure. I mean, people get in because they’re—within rich kids, probably the rich kids that are better at school get in, but it’s still rich kids getting in. So, no, I don’t think it’s a meritocracy. It’s kids who went to fancy New England prep schools and who have parents who could buy these SAT prep courses and private tutoring and just had resources. Like 40% of students are legacies. That’s not a very meritocratic policy. So no, I don’t think Harvard is a meritocracy.”
3.3. UK Students on Admissions: Universal, Individual Merit
While liberal-identified Rose identifies a problem with unequal access to a secondary education that prepares disadvantaged youth for entrance to Oxford, she believes in the system. When asked whether the underrepresentation of Black students on campus is a problem, she notes that “I think it’s a problem but it’s not Oxford’s problem. It’s an educational problem that the government needs to address. Oxford has its own criteria to maintain and that’s to keep a high level of intellectual ability in education.” In other words, considerations of unequal access to education prior to applying—a calibrated evaluation of merit—would compromise the goals of Oxford as an institution. Later Rose stated this understanding of Oxford’s essential mission even more explicitly. When asked whether the university should consider various social factors in admissions, Rose retorted that it “does not lie with Oxford to choose that,” because “Oxford has a very clear stated aim, and that is to maintain its position in an intellectual society.” Given this role for Oxford, Rose can believe that private school graduates have a better chance of admission than state school graduates, while also believing that the selection system is meritocratic.“Yes, I mean the admissions process isn’t perfect but those who get in have their merits. If you’ve got money then you can get the merits more easily. You’ve got more of an advantage anyway … I think the private schools know how to play the system, and obviously private schools you have to pay to go to. So they know how to play the exam system so you pass them, and they know how to prepare you properly for an Oxford interview because they’ve done it a lot. Whereas state schools, particularly comprehensives, but I suppose I also include grammar schools slightly, don’t have the same advantages.”
Stephen acknowledges the influence of school type, a proxy for social class, yet remains confident in Oxford’s meritocracy. Indeed, the lack of state school graduates, a fact often repeated in British national media, did not dissuade Oxford students from believing in the admissions process. Most viewed the dearth of underrepresented groups on campus as a problem, but not Oxford’s problem. Hence, it did not contravene faith in the process of selection, like it would under the calibrated merit logic underlying the responses of many U.S. students.“Although sometimes they are linked, as in—I’m not sure what the figures are, but I think it’s about 50% [of admitted students went] to [private] school, but only about 3% of people in England go to [private] school. So it is a meritocracy but that meritocracy might be to do with the upbringing of the child.”12
“I think it’s sometimes perceived as being the university’s fault that we don’t get more students in from particular backgrounds, but all the evidence suggests… that a lot of the inequities in society start at a very young age … So part of my job is to try and make people aware that it’s not just us who can influence this. This is a big issue for the UK as a whole, and it’s a government-led sort of responsibility to deal with this. It’s about raising attainment in schools… You can’t say ‘Oxford, Cambridge, it’s your job to solve social mobility.’”
The students tutors admit will be their future students in tutorials, which are intimate learning environments.13 Overall, John’s perspective highlights the individual attention to merit at Oxford, in contrast to the collective merit of the cohort that both students and admissions offices emphasized in the United States.“The interviews are obviously the main part of the admissions process and I think they are there to see who would be best at the subject… Obviously it’s in the admissions tutors’ interest to let the best people in, because then they will get the best marks and generally be the most interesting to teach… I suppose it depends on what you define as merit because obviously it’s a very narrow form of meritocracy… Whereas there are obviously other forms of merit, like moral merits, sporting ability, or whatever, which don’t get considered at all.”
3.4. Critiques at Oxford
Trevor scored high enough on a grammar school entrance exam at age 11 to gain entrée to his local grammar school. The admit rate to that school is less than 10%, making it more competitive than Oxford admissions. Trevor acknowledged both the privilege he enjoyed in attending a grammar school, as well as the advantages of peers whose parents paid tuition at expensive private schools.“I think it’s… pretty clear just from being a student in Oxford that a disproportionate amount of people get in because they’ve had the money to get in. They’ve been able to constantly afford the best education and the best kind of tuition and stuff to prepare them for getting in here. They know how to do the interview process and things like that. They’re coached in it. While that means that they might be the best kind of qualified, I don’t necessarily think that means they are the most intelligent people. Um, also in the state school kind of admissions the university clearly prefers people from state grammar schools as opposed to normal state schools, and that’s because they are very similar to private schools. So I don’t think it is a meritocracy.”
Unlike Ellen and Trevor, the majority of Oxford students expressed views on admissions in line with the selection process at Oxford.“I think there’s maybe more subjectivity in accepting people to Oxford because of the interview process, so I don’t know if that makes it more meritocratic or less, because I’m not sure how transparent the interview system is, and I think it gives a big disadvantage to people who… There are far more people who I know who have exactly the same grades as me, who work harder than me, who haven’t got into Oxford and I don’t understand why, so maybe not.”
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Using common convention in the United States, by “White” I mean non-Hispanic White.
In a pre-interview survey that students filled out on-line, we asked students, “Where would you put yourself on this scale?” and gave options of extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate/middle of the road, slightly conservative, conservative, extremely conservative. Of the 46 US students, 38 chose some form of liberal, two chose “moderate/middle of the road,” and three chose “slightly conservative.” Of the 52 British students, 31 identified as some form of liberal, 7 moderate/middle of the road, and 11 as some form of conservative. An additional three British students did not answer or chose “don’t know.”
While some of the empirical findings in this paper appear elsewhere, this paper develops the theoretical underpinnings of the empirical work, by embedding the findings in the academic literature on status legitimation and symbolic politics. Further, this paper moves beyond by comparing the Oxford case to cases in the United States, drawing on the comparison to develop a theoretical argument about status legitimation and symbolic politics.
Although the elusive nature of “extracurricular distinction” and distinctive “personal qualities” are not easily quantifiable, survey studies of admissions to selective universities in the United States have shown that being an athlete, being Black, and being Latino indeed lead to significant increases in the likelihood of admission (Espenshade et al. 2009).
Though the percentage of students receiving financial aid represents a 16% difference, the percentage of students receiving financial aid who applied for financial aid is quite similar: 65.9% applied for need-based financial aid at Harvard for the 2011–2012 academic year and 61.5% received it; at Brown 48.8% applied for need-based financial aid and 45.5% received it (U.S. News and World Report 2011a; U.S. News and World Report 2011b).
Some international students are interviewed remotely.
In the United States, two similar elite universities with different cultures of diversity were chosen for comparison. However, differences between Harvard and Brown undergraduates are not significant in the findings in this paper and so they are not discussed here. Elsewhere I discuss the views of students of color and second generation students on merit and diversity (see Warikoo 2016).In Britain, few differences distinguish elite universities with respect to their institutional supports for diversity, so only one university was included in the study.
While all interviews on each campus were completed in one calendar year, the precise year is concealed so as to further protect respondents’ identities. In addition, to further protect students’ identities all names in the paper are pseudonyms, and only characteristics that would not identify individuals are included in descriptions of students.
Total does not add up to 46 because some students had more than one subject of study. All participants signed an informed consent form.
Data for this question was taken from statistics at the time of this research. The percentages in both Britain and the United States have since changed.
Like all study participants, the Director signed an informed consent form.
Recent evidence suggests that this system is flawed. Research comparing exam results with outcomes of the interview process suggest that White applicants with the same exam results as Black or Asian students’ exam results are more likely to be offered admission after the campus interview (Boliver 2013).
In an interview Oxford’s Director of Admissions suggested that Oxford admissions is increasingly centralized. For example, colleges are more likely to swap application folders today than in the past, facilitated by the central admissions office. In addition, “Widening Access” agreements at selective British universities may place pressure on departments to accept more non-traditional candidates.
© 2018 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Warikoo, N. What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain. Soc. Sci. 2018, 7, 131. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7080131
Warikoo N. What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain. Social Sciences. 2018; 7(8):131. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7080131Chicago/Turabian Style
Warikoo, Natasha. 2018. "What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain" Social Sciences 7, no. 8: 131. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7080131