Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

It's Time to Abandon the Meritocracy

By Ashni VermaPublished November 17, 2018

Pictured above: protesters marching a sign that reads "Defend Affirmative Action"
As the battle over affirmative action rages on, it is important to question the validity of a merit-based system in determining who can and cannot climb up the socioeconomic ladder. While affirmative action is extremely controversial, it is one of the few policies in existence that can actually address this issue.

The recent lawsuit against Harvard for its supposed discrimination against Asian-American students has sparked heated debates on the validity of affirmative action. The original policy, enacted as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, aims to even the playing field of college admissions for those who have historically faced racial discrimination. However, the policy has faced continuous criticism, most recently for “favoring blacks and Latinos at the expense of Asians and whites”. There has been a long legal battle over the fate of affirmative action, but the current lawsuit, led by Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA) has the potential to reverse the effects of affirmative action for good and mandate that college admissions be “race-blind.” If the SFFA wins its case, the American education system will be rendered inherently unfair and will promote and extend existing barriers to entry for people of color.

        The basis of the plaintiff's’ case is that Harvard’s holistic admissions process leaves excessive room for subjectivity, allowing individual biases to cloud the judgement of college admissions officers in opposition to Asian applicants. This allegation in itself reveals a larger issue with the college admissions process that would only be exacerbated by the abolishment of affirmative action: the meritocracy. Affirmative action is controversial because it moves the focus of college admissions from an individual’s performance to the socioeconomic characteristics that shaped their performance. While this may negatively affect some students, it is necessary to correct the historical wrongs of this country. The meritocratic nature of our college admissions only reaffirms the long-standing class divide; in order to correct this, we need to uphold affirmative action, regardless of its negative repercussions.  

        Ideals of meritocracy call for a society in which individuals are judged not by their status or wealth, but by their ability, talent, and hard work. Widely supported by politicians, it is an appealing value, as it seemingly supports principles of upward mobility and democracy. However, the meritocracy is inherently unfair, as it only exacerbates existing class divides by rewarding those who have access to better opportunities. “’Meritocracy, while highly democratic in its intentions, has turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results.’” Those who have will gain more because they are afforded the extra tutoring, fancy extracurriculars, and extraordinary connections that make them desirable for a school like Harvard. Those who do not have are at a distinct disadvantage, regardless of how hard they work. This is clearly seen by the widening income gaps in this country in spite of the growth of enrollment in higher education. If education is supposed to be the ‘great equalizer’, then the principles of meritocracy totally undermine its validity.

        Criticisms of affirmative action rest solely on the shoulders of the meritocracy. Members of the SFFA were top students in high school who were objectively qualified for admission at Harvard. From a meritocratic standpoint, their anger with affirmative action is completely valid. Their hard work and accomplishments should have been enough to guarantee them a spot at the Ivy League. If Asian-American students are losing spots to their peers of other races who have faced more challenges but may have lower grades, those meritocratic ideals which are inseparable from American idealism fall to pieces.

        And though we’re hesitant to see the fall of such values that we deem inherently American, it may be what’s necessary to correct the historical inequalities that remain prominent in our social landscapes. While students should be rewarded for their hard work, they should not be given more than their peers who have arguably worked just as hard but could not achieve to the same degree due to their economic or social standing. The meritocratic nature of college admissions will continue to uphold structural racism in this country unless someone takes a stand against that. Affirmative action is one of the few policies that supports the democratization of higher education, as it supports efforts to encourage diversity in schools by moving criterion away from achievement alone. Even if Asian-Americans face discrimination in college admissions, the abolishment of affirmative action will be a loss for them, and for all other ethnic minorities in the United States.

        The classic American Dream pictures an individual who works hard to move up the ranks of society and ultimately receives a reward equal to their work. The real world is not like that. There are myriad factors that keep those at the bottom of the societal ladder from moving upward, and allow those who are already well off to increase their wealth. Affirmative action, while controversial, is one of the few things that can undo this system and move us closer to a society not built upon a false vision of meritocracy, but a society that acknowledges the many, many factors that make someone worthy of college admissions.

Works Cited

Chang, Alvin. 2018. “Asians Are Being Used to Make the Case against Affirmative Action. Again.” Vox. March 28, 2018.

“Essay on Values of Meritocracy and Mobility in College Admissions | Inside Higher Ed.” n.d. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Gersen, Jeannie Suk. 2017. “The Uncomfortable Truth About Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans,” August 10, 2017.

Hartocollis, Anemona. 2018a. “The Rest of the Ivy League Comes to Harvard’s Aid in Admissions Challenge.” The New York Times, July 30, 2018, sec. U.S.

———. 2018b. “Does Harvard Admissions Discriminate? The Lawsuit on Affirmative Action, Explained.” The New York Times, October 15, 2018, sec. U.S.

Hartocollis, Anemona, and Stephanie Saul. 2017. “Affirmative Action Battle Has a New Focus: Asian-Americans.” The New York Times, August 2, 2017, sec. U.S.

Littler, Jo. 2017. “Meritocracy: The Great Delusion That Ingrains Inequality | Jo Littler.” The Guardian, March 20, 2017, sec. Opinion.

Times, The New York. n.d. “The History of Affirmative Action.” The New York Times. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Yee, Vivian. 2017. “Affirmative Action Policies Evolve, Achieving Their Own Diversity.” The New York Times, August 3, 2017, sec. U.S.