The Ivy League commands respect and reverence around the world; the best and brightest are presumed to walk their halls, soon-to-be presidents and CEOs. But, their luster is starting to wear away. The Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action has returned the question of merit to the forefront of public debate as we scrutinize how the Ivy League selects its students. We seem to agree that these universities’ admissions practices are flawed, but the means by which those practices should be improved is contested. Will the end of affirmative action bring about a better focus on pure accomplishment, and will that make admissions more fair? Or is it legacy admissions, that tend to privilege the white and wealthy, that should be done away with? Do we consider standardized tests a tool for increasing equity or just another means by which the rich gain an advantage in college admissions?
These questions, and this debate, is at its core, a reckoning over who deserves to lead our nation. We generally acknowledge that Ivy League universities have a level of wealth and resources well beyond that of other colleges and universities, and so it is understood that attending one of these universities will place you in a position of power if you so choose. These universities lean into this reputation, touting their famous and powerful alums at every opportunity and promising students access to a vast network of influential people. What is most puzzling about the Ivy League and its brand, though, is that it cuts directly against the principles of egalitarian democracy.
The idea that opportunity should be evenly distributed in America is clearly violated by the presence of universities that produce an outsized proportion of our Supreme Court justices, federal politicians, and corporate leaders. The only way to reconcile the existence of the Ivy League with the democratic promise of the country is, then, to tie access to these universities to the idea of meritocracy. For us to be able to justify the amount of power and influence that these universities wield, it must be the case that access to these universities is open to anyone who proves themselves meritorious enough to deserve a seat there.
But this has never been the case, and that is because merit has failed us as an ideal. It has failed us partially because we cannot adequately quantify it, especially when it comes to college admissions. The measures we typically rely on, standardized test scores and GPAs, are poor approximations of effort and talent. Standardized tests are known to be biased in favor of the rich, who tend to have more resources to pay for expensive prep courses. Disparities in access to tutoring and other academic support resources, as well as pervasive grade inflation among middle-class high schoolers, have also undermined the credibility of GPAs, making them somewhat reflective of privilege.
There may be promise in the fact that Ivy League schools use holistic admissions, meaning they broadly consider students’ accomplishments and the context they occur in. But turning to this open consideration makes it nearly impossible to sort college students from most to least meritorious. To do so, as Princeton’s President Christopher Eisgruber says, is a “fool’s errand.” Not least because one cannot compare competencies in different areas. Who is to say the star basketball player who spends 40 hours per week practicing is more or less accomplished than the skilled violinist who has been first chair throughout high school? We also cannot effectively control for the factors that give some people more opportunities to display leadership and talent than others. The public school kid who only had a handful of clubs to participate in is at a structural disadvantage to the St. Grottlesex kid who could pick among any number of organizations to join. And then there is the broader question of whether the Ivy League can identify future leaders based on their performance on a narrow set of tasks as a teenager.
Still, one could say that enough tinkering with the admissions system will eventually yield a process that is more or less meritocratic. Even so, there is a more fundamental way in which merit is failing us, and that is by upholding the belief that we ought to be led by the few we deem most intelligent or skilled. There is something intuitively attractive about the idea of the best, brightest, and hardest working being rewarded for their talents and efforts. And, it makes sense to be given opportunity in proportion to the work ethic you display. In practice, though, what constitutes skill, intelligence, and hard work is narrowly defined, leading to the inevitable exclusion of knowledge that doesn’t come from recognized institutions like the Ivy League.
Too often the marginalization of that knowledge leads to profound failures in decision-making. Much of the failed US foreign policy of the 20th century was devised by men considered to be experts in statecraft, and that policy was implemented over the voices of dissent which came from spaces outside of mainstream knowledge centers. The decision to remain at war in Vietnam was made in spite of protests by young people deemed as naive and unreasonable, led to a catastrophic military loss and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Dozens of US-backed regime changes in Latin America ran in direct opposition to the wishes of those countries’ citizens and permanently damaged their political and economic institutions. Domestically, the launch of the War on Drugs, which led to the incarceration of millions of Black and Brown Americans, was done without much consideration of the experiences of those impacted by the carceral system or the drug crisis of the late 20th century. In the private sector, corporate leaders with blue blood backgrounds, whom we assumed would act with prudence and wisdom, backed predatory mortgages that targeted everyday people and tanked the world economy in 2008. How much differently all of these decisions may have been those not traditionally considered meritorious, those who would be affected most by these choices, had a say?
Meritocracy, in its simultaneous immeasurability and ubiquity, has also come to justify social inequalities that ought to be attributed to structural issues. The promise of the American dream ignores the issues of unequal access that keeps groups of people from reaching positions of power. Poverty, income inequality, educational inequality, housing inequality, all widespread inequalities are seen as obstacles for the individual to hurdle rather than profound issues our society has a responsibility to respond to, because those who are most meritorious, we think, ought to be able to succeed in spite of adversity. So we continue to concentrate power and ignore the barriers we have constructed to keep people from accessing it, in violation of the purest ideals of democracy and collective decision-making.
In this light, the Ivy League’s existence looks unsettling. It looks like an institution that entrenches and reproduces aristocracy while claiming to offer opportunity for all. And it is not necessarily the case that finding a better way to measure merit will fix this problem, because we will still be left with a system where power flows to the few. So as the conversation about college admissions continues, I hope we view the role of both merit and the Ivy League in higher education with skepticism, and that we begin considering whether our society would be better off without them.
Caleb Dunson is a student at Yale University studying economics and political science. You can read more of his work at the Yale Daily News.