Redefining Merit

Following the college admissions scandal, countless thought pieces have addressed inequity in college admissions. Understandably, many are angry that wealthy families can literally buy their children into a university, while underrepresented, low-income students are often seen as given unfair consideration when admitted to highly selective institutions. Too often, racially underrepresented low-income students are seen as “pity” admits — encouraged to depict their life-story as one in need of intervention from a particular college or university. Throughout their time in post-secondary education, many of these students face assumptions from their peers as to whether or not they would have been admitted without affirmative action programs or an institution’s attempt to increase racial diversity on campus.

I wonder if people who make those assumptions have ever considered how these students are able to thrive at these institutions. To believe that a particular student did not get in on their own merit suggests that they may be incapable of succeeding at a particular institution. I recognize that retention, completion and persistence data for low-income students and students of color vary and often are lower than White and wealthy students, however, I think it is important to note that the success stories aren’t anomalies and treating them as such adds to the prevailing notion that these students lack the ability to succeed.

Andrew Martinez

These students are able to navigate environments that were not built and developed to serve them. Whether they employ code-switching on a daily basis, find incredible mentors that help them adjust and thrive on campus, or figure out ways to succeed despite the many barriers or challenges they encounter throughout their time in higher education, there is something special about their achievements. Rather than focusing on their failure, how can we learn from their success?

In terms of admission, I wonder — how do committees define merit? What is being prioritized in creating an incoming class? While decades of research has proven that standardized tests do not accurately predict academic success in college (or graduate school), and that these exams are skewed to privilege wealthy test-takers, these metrics are still used widely. Another proxy for merit would be the number of clubs a student was involved in or how much a student volunteers in a given year. While this may provide valuable insight about the leadership qualities and talents of a particular applicant, what happens to an applicant whose schools does not have any clubs? What happens to the student who has to work from 2 – 7 p.m. after school to help their family?

These students possess a quality that is often overlooked, misunderstood and unrecognized. The ability to juggle school, work and the challenges that come with poverty while still succeeding academically and applying to selective institutions should not be met with assumptions that they are unworthy of admission. While they may have a harder transition from “culture shock” or inadequate academic preparation due to inequitable schooling, once admitted, their success at an institution should be tied to a commitment on the institution’s end to make sure they have the tools necessary to succeed.

While the attention toward the recent admissions scandal is noteworthy and worth further investigation, I was not surprised about the allegations. If you were to look at the programming being done by identity-based student organizations at these institutions or editorials by students in their campus newspapers, you will find many critiques of legacy admissions or the influence of wealthy campus donors. I believe if we focus on redefining what we consider merit and find transparent ways to demonstrate how committees make their admissions decisions, we can then begin to address the problems with how admissions at highly selective institutions are handled today.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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