Americans no longer cherish the illusion of the United States as a perfect meritocracy—if they ever did. But they still seem to expect unalloyed merit to prevail in two contexts: the Last Judgment and the college admissions process.
Daniel Golden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal, shares at least the latter of those expectations. In his new book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” Golden takes to task the people who run the nation’s elite institutions of higher education for departing from a standard of strict academic merit in making admissions decisions—and for substituting assorted less-noble criteria, such as family wealth, parental fame, old connections and, in the case of my institution, legacy status, or being the child of an alumnus or alumna.
My first response to Golden’s book—after a grimace—is to be grateful for his idealism. Without it, and without people like him who insist on believing in a meritocratic ideal, it would be all too easy for those of us involved in the pull-and-tug of educational decision-making to succumb to cynicism.
My second response is to say that the idealist’s approach is deceptively, unrealistically simple, to the point of being simplistic. Having worked in private college admissions for almost 40 years, I can safely say that decision-making is more art than science. No one has yet perfected the skill of human assessment. And especially at highly selective universities like Notre Dame, where we have many more applicants who are academically competitive than we can accommodate, we say “no” each year to thousands of students who could be successful here simply because we have no room.
The meritocratic ideal also suffers from the assumption that merit can be established definitively and “by the numbers”—high school grade-point average and SAT or ACT scores. Who is to say that those are the numbers that ought to count? All high school curricula are not the same and an “A” at one school is not necessarily the equivalent of an “A” at another. And the academic significance of standardized test scores is one of the longest-running arguments in higher education.
But the biggest flaw in the meritocratic ideal is its misconception of exactly what the admissions staff at an institution like ours is doing as it sifts applications and says “yes” to some and “no” to others.
Admissions officers do not “select” a freshman class so much as they try to “shape” one. Each year, from among many hundreds of qualified applicants, we try to bring to Notre Dame a group of students who will add something to our intellectual community. Scholars, athletes, students familiar with the rich tradition of this Catholic university, first-generation college students, ethnic-minority students and others all come together to learn with and from each other.
As my eldest daughter shared with me in her first e-mail home as a first-year Notre Dame student, “One’s opportunities to learn are only limited by your need for sleep.”
Using this approach, admissions staffs at selective institutions attempt each year to create a learning community that reflects in some degree the ethnic, socioeconomic, athletic and other mixture of our society and world.
Always, of course, there is one clear imperative: that every student we admit must be honestly capable of competing with all the rest. Whether at Notre Dame, Harvard, Duke or any other “elite” institution, it would not only be unethical but also cruel to grant admission solely because of family ties, wealth, race, athletic talent or any other such attribute to a student we knew could not compete academically.
We also attempt to satisfy a diverse mix of legitimate interests in our institutions. To take my own again as an example, the intense loyalty of our alumni is part of what makes Notre Dame the place it is and is, we feel, a legitimate factor to consider in the admissions process.
It also must be noted that the financial contributions of those alumni are, to a large degree, what has enabled us to adopt a need-blind admissions policy, admitting qualified students without regard to their ability to pay and committing to meet 100 percent of every admitted student’s demonstrated financial need.
That’s part of the irony in the subtitle of Golden’s book: “How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.” To an extent he perhaps does not appreciate, part of the price of admission for the “ruling class” is to pay the way for many who otherwise would be left outside the gates.