Wealthy California parents undermine push for ‘meritocracy’ in college admissions

March 13, 2019

A UCLA student studies on the steps of Royce Hall.

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There is a deep irony that almost all the parents charged with crimes in the college bribery scandal that exploded in national headlines on Tuesday are from California.

Arguably no other state has done as much to level the playing field in admitting students to its public universities, including to its most selective colleges.

Twenty-five out of the 33 wealthy parents charged in the case involving devious schemes to get their children into a range of mostly private universities live in California, as do 10 out of 17 of coaches, athletic directors and others charged with actually carrying out the schemes.

Their involvement makes a mockery of efforts to create a meritocratic society, especially in California, in which hard work and a good education are supposed to help overcome class and wealth differences.

“IQ + effort = merit” is how the British sociologist Michael Young defined meritocracy when he coined the term 70 years ago. He envisaged a fully democratic society governed by “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”

It is obvious that there is still a long way to go before such a society is achieved in the United States.

Income still has a profound impact on who gets into elite or competitive colleges. Students from the highest income levels are “vastly overrepresented” at 200 of the nation’s most selective universities, including at “flagship” public universities, and those numbers actually increased in the 2000s, according to a 2018 American Enterprise Institute report.

The pattern in California is different, where the influence of family income is still a factor in its public universities, but much less so than in other states.

It is significant that about 4 in 10 students enrolled in the 10-campus University of California system receive Pell Grants. That’s far more than any other top public research university system in the country. Pell Grants are federal grants awarded to low-income undergraduates, typically those from families with incomes of less than $50,000.

The percentage of Pell Grant students is higher at several UC campuses and lower at others. At UC Berkeley in 2016-17, about 30 percent of students received Pell Grants, and 36 percent at UCLA.  Without including out-of-state students who are from higher-income backgrounds, those numbers would be even higher. That compared to the 16 percent of Pell Grant students at Harvard University and 15 percent at Stanford University.

Some of this has been accomplished by putting in place a system of what it calls “comprehensive review” at the University of California, which takes into account a much broader range of factors in admitting students than most selective public universities. It has also eliminated, at least officially, so-called “legacy admissions,” which gave preference for students whose parents are UC alumni.

As a result of these policies, reinforced by California’s changing demographics in recent decades, some 42 percent of all UC undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college and nearly two-thirds of those students are from low-income backgrounds.

Beyond the University of California, the 23-campus California State University system and the 114 California Community Colleges are even less selective and admit far higher percentages of low-income students. At all three systems, large numbers of low-income students receive tuition waivers, intended to open college doors to all.

There is still much more to be done, not only at UC’s most selective campuses but across the university system where living and other costs in addition to tuition create high barriers to attendance for many students and enrollments are still skewed towards higher-income families, even at most CSU campuses.

In the wake of the scandal, for example, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley has called for ending the use of SAT and ACT tests, which favor higher-income students.

One issue that the admissions scandal has highlighted is why it would be so important to already extremely wealthy families for their children to attend some of the nation’s most elite universities — when their families are already part of the elite.

That may have something to do with the dramatic decline in children who end up earning more than their parents do, especially among those at high income levels, causing anxiety among even the wealthiest families. As Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argued in a recent article, “To achieve a position in the top tier of wealth, power and privilege, in short, it helps enormously to start there.”

He cites Yale law professor Daniel Markovits’ assertion that “American meritocracy has become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.”

The scandal should be a wake-up call in California to guard against insidious efforts to undermine the admissions process, whether at a private or public university, and for the state to renew efforts to create a meritocratic society that affirms its democratic ideals.

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