College admissions: aristocracy or meritocracy?

Affirmative action is before the Supreme Court yet again. This time it is the University of Texas in the hot seat; soon it might be Harvard defending itself against credible charges that its admission policies discriminate against Asian applicants.

The essence of these cases is whether everyone is to be treated the same in college admissions or if some people are to be treated differently.

We know what the Constitution says on this matter as far as government entities are concerned: everyone is to be treated the same.

This is not what is happening on elite college campuses, many of them private. Some students are preferred over other applicants because of their race. Others gain a similar competitive advantage by virtue of being born to alumni or wealthy donors.

Both forms of preference could be considered aristocratic. An aristocracy is a system in which some people are born into different life circumstances than others, and receive certain advantages (and sometimes, responsibilities) based on this fact.

When privilege or preference is based on something you can’t control, such as the circumstances of your birth or whose genes you carry, then that is the definition of an aristocracy: an inherited place in life.

A meritocracy, on the other hand, is a system where everyone is equal and opportunities are earned through merit. Merit could be defined as ability, effort and/or achievement.

The crucial difference is this: You’re either born into it or it is earned.

Since colleges serve a crucial sorting function in American life, what happens there is extended into American society at large. Is America a meritocracy, as we were all taught and would like to believe, or is it just another aristocracy? Increasingly, we seem to be going down the European aristocratic road, with predictably decadent and degenerating results visible to all insightful observers of our distant ruling class.

In a meritocracy, entrance is open to everyone based on ability, effort and ingenuity. You can control your own destiny based on what you do. This is considered the American Way. This open door of opportunity has led to fantastic individual achievements that are the envy of the world. This willingness to strive derives from the promise that, with hard work and talent, you can rise and your prospects aren’t limited or constrained by your humble origins.

Nothing destroys motivation and a belief in the fairness of the system like an entrenched aristocracy.

Elite colleges like to portray themselves as meritocracies. This convenient fiction generates tremendous respect for their graduates. There is indeed a certain segment of the class that is admitted meritocratically, and this portion lends credibility to the endeavors of the rest.

Allowing an aristocracy to coexist at the same institution, however, undermines the integrity of the entire process and throws the credentials of all graduates into question. It’s time to end the charade of pretending that grades and test scores matter equally for all applicants. The aristocratic alumni from elite schools are borrowing part of their status as graduates -- and the accompanying assumptions of their competence -- from the meritocrats who earned entrance based on their achievements, rather than the mere circumstances of their birth.

Of course, awareness of functioning double standards also casts legitimate doubt on the actual achievements of members of preferred categories -- yet another serious problem with maintaining two sets of books.

Eliminating aristocratic preferences based on race also means eliminating aristocratic legacy preferences for the children of alumni and the children of the rich and well connected. Fair is fair. It’s the same thing: awarding people things based on the luck of whomever they happen to be related to. (Case in point: Is there anyone who thinks that Malia Obama is not going to be admitted to every school she applies to, regardless of her academic transcript?)

It’s time to end the aristocracy in higher education. It hurts everyone.

Bonnie Snyder is the author of The New College Reality and the founder of Outsmarting College. She is an honors graduate of Harvard, earned a doctorate in Higher Education from Penn State, and has worked in college admissions.