Is America’s “Meritocracy” Truly Meritorious?

Angelina Xu ’21

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “merit” as the qualities or actions that constitute the basis of one’s rewards [1].  Immigrants come to America with the prospect of the American Dream, in which all are given equal opportunities to achieve success through hard work and initiative. This concept of meritocracy applies to college admissions as well.  With the advent of the new school year, high school seniors busily finish their applications, hoping to get accepted into their dream school. But what truly establishes excellence in America?


Aside from superb grades and outstanding extracurriculars, American colleges also examine an applicant’s ethnic and social background.  In order to promote equal opportunities for minority groups, college admission officers use affirmative action when reviewing applications.  


However, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions recently filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants by holding them to higher academic and extracurricular standards than students of other races [2].  According to the filing, Harvard “uses vague ‘personal rating[s]’ that harm Asian-American applicants’ chances for admission and may be infected with racial bias; engages in unlawful racial balancing; and has never seriously considered race-neutral alternatives in its more than 45 years of using race to make admissions decisions” [3].  Evidently, aside from a student’s hard work, a college applicant’s admission also depends on his or her ethnicity and social background due to colleges wanting to diversify the student body.


Proponents of the Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit claim that there must be an end to racial classifications in college admissions.  On the other hand, opponents assert that other races, such as caucasians, may be manipulating Asian-Americans in the lawsuit to deprive minorities of educational opportunities, thus benefiting themselves and creating an imbalance in higher education [2].  


Understanding both sides of the issue, Aman Singh ‘19 states, “I agree that affirmative action tends to allow for some discrimination against Asian Americans in the college admission process, however I disagree that it is the best way to fight for equality.”  He further asserts, “I personally believe that legacy admissions are a bigger issue when it comes to admission.”


Nonetheless, whether or not the Supreme Court rules in the plaintiff’s favor, the case reveals that perseverance and diligence are not the sole constituents of excellence in America; inherent factors, such as social class and race, play a role as well.


Contrary to the ostensible “meritocracy” in America, Finland — with the world’s leading education system — provides the same education for all students because officials believe that education is a fundamental right [4].  As a result, schools, including publicly funded universities, do not charge tuitions. Another leader in education, Belgium also provides public and private schooling to children ages four to eighteen at little or no cost [5].  Unlike these European countries, college tuitions cost a fortune in America, averaging $9,970 for state residents at public colleges and $34,740 at private colleges per year [6]. These numbers are even higher for top-tier universities.  Therefore, the ability to obtain a higher education in the United States also depends on one’s economic capabilities to afford the cost.


As a senior applying to colleges, Julianne Milosis ‘19 corroborates, “While many students at Ridge apply to and are accepted into high ranked, well rated, and nationally recognized colleges and universities, many of us are limited to institutions that we can afford or take on the burden of sizeable student debt upon graduation.”


All in all, the different education systems around the world determine a student’s ability to achieve excellence. While the American Dream promises citizens equal opportunities, many policies in America do not truly provide equity for all, whether it be ethnicity or financial abilities.