KIRO NEWSRADIO OPINION

Russell: How merit based are university admissions really?

Jul 14, 2023, 8:36 AM | Updated: Mar 27, 2024, 1:56 pm

merit university admissions...

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. Days after the Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action in college admissions, activists say they will sue Harvard over its use of legacy preferences for children of alumni. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Since the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, we have heard a lot of people talk about merit, a word that technically means the quality of being particularly good or worthy. But how it’s being used is puzzling.

I think it’s important we come up with a definition on which we can agree. And I’m going to share three good reasons why when it comes to this issue.


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First, do you know that Harvard received 56,000 applications this year, and you know how many they accepted? Under 2000, an acceptance rate of 3.4%. There were more people rejected than could fit in T-Mobile Park.

It was an almost identical story at Stanford, same at Princeton and Notre Dame, your chances are a little bit higher at roughly 15%.

These odds make the University of Washington seem easy, with an acceptance rate of 53%. Are we really to believe that all those people turned away weren’t qualified, especially when we consider this?

GPAs have risen drastically in the last few decades. We can debate why another time, but in 1990, the average GPA was 2.68. Today, the average is more like 3.3.

It’s estimated that half of high school seniors have A averages, and get this, the GPAs for girls are a bit higher. So if we’re going to look at grades and split hairs and talk about merit, only then maybe we should just have all-women colleges in the future because it is merit-based.

But I digress. The point is that colleges find themselves turning down highly qualified students all the time. There are just more people than there are spots, especially at elite schools.

When you have so many qualified people, how does the university choose? Do they prefer one extracurricular over another?

So getting into college has felt elusive for some, and when students with high-strung parents couldn’t figure out how to crack the code, they became more desperate, which leads to my next point.

The result? More families turning to private college counselors. 30 years ago, fewer than 100 people worked as full-time Educational Consultants. That number is now 8000.

Just like athletes pay for extra coaching, families will pay for the test prep for a better score. But yeah, we’re going into a meritorious system.

Point three, what could be more merit-based than legacy admissions? Oh, yeah, it’s giving preference to students whose family members attended the school.

In 2011 Harvard researchers studied 30 highly selective colleges and found that all other things being equal, legacy applicants got a 23% increase in their probability of admission. If the applicant’s connection was a parent who attended as an undergrad, the increase was 45%.

Here’s the bottom line, for all the people saying by this ruling, we’re going back to merit-based systems, it’s time to get to fantasyland.

Nothing about what I talked about is merit-based, as the word is being used. The truth is a lot of kids applying to schools are worthy, and using that word to describe this new era is really an insult to people of color because there’s an assumption they somehow weren’t qualified.

If you’re against the consideration of race as one of many factors on a college application, that’s one thing, but declaring it is now merit-based isn’t accurate. And next year, in this post-affirmative action college world, when thousands of qualified kids still get rejection letters from their dream school, I guess they’ll be forced to reckon with that truth.

It is a competitive world out there, and people have advantages for many reasons, not usually because they’re of color.

So with that, welcome to the real world. Now, go out and change it for the better for everybody, and I promise you, you don’t need an elite college to do that.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Russell: How merit based are university admissions really?