“Kyle Kashuv deserved a spot a Harvard, they shouldn’t have rescinded him.” “Those Asian applicants should have gotten into Harvard, their scores were more than enough.” “I’m sure those students got in with affirmative action, they couldn’t have earned their spots otherwise.”
Any of this ring a bell? In dialogues about the admission and rescission policies of Harvard and similarly elite educational institutions, the concept of “deserving” admission is frequently raised, with the implicit assumption that college admissions are an ideal meritocratic system.
Time and time again, this notion of entitlement — that somehow surpassing an unnamed threshold of accomplishments attains an irrevocable claim to a cap and gown at Harvard’s graduation ceremony — resurfaces to be leveraged in any new controversy regarding Harvard’s admissions system, be it the ongoing discrimination lawsuit, Kyle Kashuv’s rescission, or a passing conversation about the merits of affirmative action.
The ability to earn and accumulate credits in order to reach a vaguely-defined meter bar and, with it, a ticket to the Ivy League, is a concept rooted in a belief about the meritocratic nature of higher education admissions. At its core, it is a reflection of the American “bootstrap” work ethic — everyone gets what they work for. And certainly, a meritocratic admissions system is what all of our higher education institutions should strive for. But this sense of entitlement hurts, rather than helps, in creating this meritocratic system.
To begin with, the idea of “deserving” admission is usually associated with a limited set of academic qualities. Often individuals who buy into the idea of “deserving” admission believe these academic qualities should be the only intellectual criteria for college admissions. It is not hard to immediately identify what these qualities are — a high grade point average, an ambitious course load, flawless scores on the SAT.
The problem with this mindset is that it completely discounts the systemic disadvantages and differences that exist across the educational landscape. Implicit in the notion that everyone gets what they work for is the belief that everyone has the equal opportunity to do so, and unfortunately, that is not a practical reflection of reality. The truth is that it is simply much easier for someone raised in the Upper East Side — or any upper middle-class district in America — to afford and access tutoring services, multiple takes of the SAT, and even a readily available, comfortable environment to study than someone from a single-parent family below the poverty line. It does not make sense to measure academic achievements as they appear on a standard scale. They need to be contextualized.
But to step even further back, the idea that entitlement to a seat in higher education should be constricted to simply these academic achievements is questionable, and misses the point of admissions criteria. The fact is that a student with a beyond stellar academic record is never entitled to a place at Harvard. Why? Because any admissions system should account for traits beyond those that can be minimized to empirical numbers — they ought to consider personal character, basic values, and capacity for compassion. The goals of our most elite higher education institutions are not to create self-superior, exclusive enclaves grounded in limited highbrow perspectives; they are to nurture vibrant communities that facilitate civil and ethical exchanges of diverse ideas, opinions, and experiences in order to create future generations of critical, creative, and conscientious leaders. When we think more sharply about the goals of institutions like Harvard, it is not difficult to recognize why admissions criteria should not be limited to a checklist of academic statistics, and why they must account for qualities like personality and social behavior.
In short, in mainstream discussions of college admissions, the idea of “deserving” admission can only be used if one assumes a level playing field — which does not exist. This notion reinforces a wrong and unrealistic vision of meritocracy — one in which the way merit is defined and evaluated is unbalanced and unfair. Moreover, the concept of entitlement also fails to account for the actual aims of admissions systems, instead limiting the scope of what it takes to be “deserving” to a checklist of intellectual or scholastic accomplishments.
To truly move meritocratic systems forward — and I fully acknowledge that institutions like Harvard have a long way to go in realizing such systems — we must first discard this notion of “deserving,” and start by reconsidering what purposes and outcomes admissions criteria exist to serve and create.
K. Cathy Sun ‘22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.