Once again, meritocracy is a fantasy

This is somewhat old, but my attention was brought to it today. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education editor Peter Schmidt, 15 percent of incoming freshman at elite schools are white kids who failed to meet admission standards, but had some connection that got them in. Their parents might be big donors, alumni, important politicians, or have some other connection to the school totally unrelated to the merit of the accepted students.

I’ve written again and again about the misplaced focus our society has on college as the solution to poverty and inequality, and everything else for that matter. But so long as we are going to hold up college as the great equalizer and solution to all our social woes, shouldn’t we at least make even the slightest effort at ensuring some sort of level playing field for admissions? How can you seriously pound the importance of college into every poor kid’s head while simultaneously closing off huge numbers of admission slots to everyone but the most privileged and well connected?

Once again, we see the charade of meritocracy as just that. Rich parents will game the system for their kids, just as anyone who thought about it would expect them to. They will hold them back from kindergarten for a year specifically to make sure they are the oldest and most developed in their class, a process called redshirting. They will use their business connections to secure their kids jobs, even if temporarily. And of course, they will do what they can to capture seats for their kids at the best universities.

Personally, I don’t regard meritocracy as a very interesting or worthwhile ideal, but if we are going to make that the cornerstone of our economic ideology, then let’s get serious about it. No more preferential treatment for the kids of donors, faculty members, and the well-connected. These kids already have huge amounts of built-in advantages that should actually be reflected in their grades and scores. If they squander those, then they should be kept out of the great social mobility factory of college.

The ruling class browbeats everyone else and the poor in particular about trying harder, getting more education, and generally improving their merit. Then they turn around and do everything they possibly can to reserve those merit channels for their kids alone. It’s like some sick game of keep away. It would be one thing if the ruling class sort of cynically pursued this project of convincing everyone that meritocracy was real and relevant while simultaneously undermining it for their own gain. But the boring truth is probably that they have bought into their own nonsense, somehow remaining oblivious to the ways in which their own behaviors illustrate how ridiculous the meritocracy story really is.