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Merit means more than grades and tests

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn half a century of affirmative action in higher education is forcing colleges and universities to rethink their admissions processes and the purpose of these processes. These institutions can promote both individual excellence and a more inclusive society, while fully complying with the court ruling.

When I was in the Boy Scouts, we got merit badges. The concept was simple: you were awarded a badge if you demonstrated the required knowledge or skill in a particular area. This definition of merit worked well enough for the scouts, but not for admission to selective schools. Going to college is more than an acknowledgment of past achievements. Admissions officers must also assess whether an applicant can perform at the required level in the future. They make a prediction, which involves a degree of uncertainty.

These agents look for evidence to reduce the level of uncertainty. High school grades are just one of those indicators. Students with mediocre grades but high scores on nationally standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT could have the potential to do better than they did in the past. But if they’re not motivated to do better, they probably won’t. Assessing motivation isn’t a science, but schools should be, because some of the most creative and successful adults are late bloomers and colleges can’t afford to overlook them.

There is an additional complication: students come from different backgrounds. Differences in family background, neighbourhood, economic status and quality of schools influence the future level of education. Some high schools in poor areas do not offer advanced courses in science and mathematics, so even their best students are not given the opportunity to develop and demonstrate their proficiency in these subjects.

To address such disparities, institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin accept a fixed percentage of the top-performing students from each high school in their state, even if the top students in the low-performing schools have lower educational attainment and lower scores on standardized tests. The bet is that top students, regardless of their background, have shown that they want to seize the opportunity. Past achievements are important, but what these students can do in the future is more important.

The purpose of higher education extends beyond academic achievement. Many institutions say they want to develop the leaders of tomorrow. If so, an applicant’s demonstration of leadership potential is relevant. A high school student who creates a community service program that attracts the participation of others would probably be a solid candidate. While many students focus on the drama of their own lives in job application essays, others may use the space to emphasize their commitment to future leadership in civil society, the private sector, or public life.

Other social considerations also play a role. It would be easy for medical schools to choose their entry classes based on the college performance of their applicants. But only top grades could produce a disproportionate number of medical researchers and well-paid specialists, exacerbating shortages in other fields such as gerontology and internal medicine, which could diminish the quality of medical care we routinely experience.

Here too, character and motivation make the difference. While empathy and patience may matter less to surgeons, they are crucial to doctors who spend their days caring for children, the elderly and the mentally ill. Medical schools cannot ignore these qualities when making admission decisions. Similarly, many poor minority communities experience a chronic shortage of medical care. The determination of some applicants to work in these communities should be relevant in admissions decisions.

For much of the 20th century, the Protestant establishment used qualitative factors such as character and leadership potential to exclude Jews, Catholics, and others from certain educational institutions and professions. Quantitative standards, such as national tests, helped break down barriers and open doors for talented students, regardless of their background.

However, in recent decades it has become clear that the definition of merit expressed in quantitative measures was too narrow and created new forms of exclusion. This has led some thinkers to reject the idea of ​​merit, seeing it as an affront to individual equality and social solidarity.

This overreaction is wrong in theory and harmful in practice. When the ability to do a job well matters, so does merit. Our current challenge is not to brush aside merit, but rather to better understand it – and use this new understanding to provide opportunity for all who can benefit from it.