Image of a sign that reads, "honk for your kid's future"
Photo by Kyla Duhamel, Flickr CC

The FBI recently announced charges in a wide-spread college admission scandal involving fake test scores and fabricated athletic resumes. In the wake of the scandal, sociologists are weighing in and reminding us that college admissions is as much about legitimating privilege as improving life prospects. Sociologists have long been skeptical of the term meritocracy, which was in fact first coined as satire by Michael Young. The research below shows how constructed measures of merit in college admissions play a key part in reproducing inequality.

Mitchell Stevens spent a year in the admissions department at a selective liberal arts school. His book describes “the aristocracy of merit” — especially how the review process rewards the activities and presentation styles most common for privileged students. And while admissions officers are mostly the ones judging merit, the book also highlights how staff from other departments, such as coaches or fundraising officers, can advocate for a student’s admission. Shamus Khan’s ethnographic work similarly notes how elite prep schools set up their students to be competitive in elite college admission through skills, activities, and awards. Prep school staff even occasionally call admissions offices of Ivy League schools for students.
Other work on college admissions highlights that the idea of “merit” has always been socially constructed because those with race and class privilege can set the rules. For instance, colleges instituted  “holistic admission” in the early twentieth century because contemporary elites worried that their children would be shut out of attending their alma mater because of high-achieving Jewish students. They rewrote admissions criteria to devalue standardized test scores in favor of a review process that gave students credit for the experiences, skills, and habits that students from the upper-class were more likely to have.
So, if upper-class kids already have advantages, why is there a college cheating scandal? Jessica Calarco points out in NPR that the students affected by this scandal would likely do well no matter what school they attended, but parents are anxious about rising inequality, a bifurcating labor market, and afraid that children will have a harder time than their parents did. From teaching children how to advocate for themselves in school to paying thousands of dollars for out-of-school activities, middle and upper-class parents do whatever they can to help their children get ahead. American higher education is a decentralized marketplace that runs on prestige, which makes credentials from a big-name school potentially even more important in today’s changing labor market — both for students looking for social mobility and those looking to legitimate their privilege.

As Anthony Jack told CNN, the admission scandal flips the usual script — usually when we are discussing merit in college admissions it is around insinuations that minority students don’t deserve to get in. For more on race-based affirmative action, check out other TSP work below!

Affirmative Action, College Admissions, and the Debunked “Mismatch” Hypothesis

The Supreme Court’s Impacts on Race and Admissions in America

Merit and the Admissions Debates at Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School