What is merit?

Federal prosecutors have charged more than 50 people in a scheme in which uber-wealthy parents are accused of getting their children into some of the nation’s most elite colleges by faking athletic accomplishments, lying about learning disabilities, cheating on standardized tests and paying millions of dollars in bribes.

The allegations are extreme both in the amounts of money involved and the brazen nature of the deceit, but they offer yet another example of how wealth and privilege create advantage in a society supposedly built on merit.

Nowhere is the idea of merit evoked more readily than at the nation’s most elite colleges, whose status is linked to the high test scores, grades and stellar achievements of many of their students and graduates. Yet nowhere is the idea of a meritocracy more readily compromised.

The joke is that most gifted students were gifted with well-off and well-educated parents. When you go onto the campus of Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Harvard or any other of the nation’s 40 or 50 most selective universities, you can see why that joke bites.

Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer arrives at Boston Federal Court for an arraignment on March 12. Vandemoer is among several charged in an alleged college admissions scam.

Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The lion’s share of students at those schools are from educated, upper-middle-class families. Others are straight-up rich. Many attended well-funded suburban schools or elite private schools. They often took rigorous test prep classes. Growing up, many had exposure to a rich set of experiences that helped develop their interests and skills while also providing raw material for their college essays.

Which is all good. The problem is that after all that, we often call these young people “smart,” as if their abilities and knowledge were innate.

If that’s not enough of a leg up, nearly half of the nation’s private colleges and 6 percent of public ones consider legacy status when mulling student applications, according to a survey last year by the publication Inside Higher Ed. Legacy students get special consideration from admissions officers because their parents, grandparents or other close relatives are alumni, building school spirit and encouraging donations.

Still other students get a boost into the most elite schools because they are athletes. While much of the attention goes to the most popular college sports, football and basketball, “minor” sports such as tennis, water polo and soccer also allow student-athletes to get into top schools with lower average test scores and grades than their classmates.

None of these practices seems to cause as big a stir as when schools consider a student’s race in the admissions process. Some of the nation’s top schools have a surprising measure of racial diversity (at Harvard, for example, the university reported that 27 percent of the students admitted in 2018 were black or Hispanic), in part because of affirmative action, which gives underrepresented minorities an edge in the admissions process.

Colleges justify affirmative action much as they do legacy, sports or other admissions exceptions: as a way to foster a diverse campus and an involved and far-reaching alumni community.

Higher education leaders could also add that they are helping to diversify the upper ranks of the nation’s biggest and most influential institutions, from law firms and corporations to government agencies and media companies, since a disproportionate share of the nation’s ruling class is educated at elite colleges.

Crown Realty and Development CEO Robert Flaxman (center) leaves the federal court in Los Angeles on March 12. Flaxman was charged with mail fraud for allegedly paying to have his son recruited as an athlete to the University of San Diego and to help his daughter cheat on her ACT.

EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

Relatively few people raise much of a fuss about the (mostly white) legacy students, or (mostly white) water polo or lacrosse teams. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Yet, when looking at affirmative action, the critics are louder and more numerous, and they often want to revert to the idea of a strict meritocracy. Test scores and grades should be all that matters when admitting students, they say, as if relatively small differences in these measures are the final word about a student’s academic potential.

Cases seeking to curtail affirmative action have been making their way to the Supreme Court since the 1970s. A federal judge in Boston is currently deliberating a suit against Harvard alleging that its affirmative action program discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Meanwhile, the practice has been outlawed in several states, including California, Texas and Florida.

Many African-American students, regardless of whether they benefited from affirmative action, say they feel like some classmates question whether they earned their places at elite colleges. That mistaken notion animates some of the most fervent opponents of affirmative action, who argue that the policy only fuels racial suspicions and resentments without truly helping its supposed beneficiaries. But maybe now that view will change.

If the unfolding college bribery scandal comes with any silver lining, maybe it is that it will cause people to recalibrate their assumptions about who does and does not belong at elite universities.

They might also rethink what constitutes merit. Maybe they’ll find that a strict meritocracy never existed at all.

Scandal makes it obvious college admissions were never a strict meritocracy The same justification for admitting athletes or legacy students applies to affirmative action

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