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A Call for Elite Schools to Redefine ‘Merit’

I simply refuse to believe that talent is clustered within those who have the most. I am convinced that talent is universal, yet our highly selective colleges and universities mostly value the former.

Highly selective institutions of higher education, such as the Ivy League and other highly selective schools that hold need-blind admission policies, have the unique opportunity, privilege and responsibility to lead with actions that other colleges and universities – not only in this country, but worldwide – will use as examples in the years to come.

One of these actions should be the continuous search for gap-closing mechanisms capable of configuring incoming cohorts of students that are truly diverse, not only by skin color, gender identities or socio-economic status, but also by their perceived academic ability. This would translate in successfully identifying remarkable students who do not necessarily have the best GPAs and standardized scores, but who could potentially make ground-breaking contributions to their communities and our society.

102 U.S. colleges and universities with need-blind admissions practices.102 U.S. colleges and universities with need-blind admissions practices.

This is a call for action to all 102 need-blind admission colleges and universities, to move beyond their current admission systems. In these systems, these highly selective institutions merely reward truly exceptional cases of low-income and/or underserved students who have brilliantly mastered admission exams. This implies that this same system has simultaneously systematically failed to identify many more noteworthy students. I am not implying that low-income, highest-achieving students should not be awarded admission to these prestigious institutions; I am instead arguing that focusing on these exceptional cases is doing relatively nothing to make a broader impact on society.

My main claim is that, to the extent we are capable of identifying “academically average” students who are truly remarkable in other areas and providing them with the means to move up in our society’s highly stratified ranks, then the scope to which prestigious institutions can help diversify the elite and close persistent societal gaps will be broader and more effective.

The identification of innovative strategies toward the diversification of incoming classes of selective and prestigious colleges and universities is a remarkable example of commitment toward honoring what I perceive as the true value of higher education: providing opportunities to everyone, especially those who, by current standards, may not even be considered as potential recipients of such opportunities or privilege. These institutions are without a doubt best situated to strengthen their role as true overarching, gap-closing enterprises.

Universities, especially the most prestigious ones, can work toward diversifying the elites by surpassing standardized admission hurdles. However, specific strategies that lead to this successful identification of these divergently remarkable students are not in place yet. Accordingly, I argue for the creation of task forces whose main charges consist of moving beyond our current reward/meritocratic system that overstresses traditional rubrics of “merit.” These colleges and universities can lead the way toward a redefinition of merit, one that reflects and shapes the lives of individuals who are “succeeding” while not “shining,” as measured by our current system, due to their constant and persistent struggles.

In sum, I certainly do not have the formula that would help to identify these average yet exceptional cases, but I am convinced that the resources are in place toward the establishment of a unifying task force charged with achieving this goal.

Talent is universal and is not just captured by high scores on admission exams.

Dr. Manuel S. González Canché is an associate professor at the Higher Education Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He relies on analysis of big and geo-referenced data, geographical network analysis and quasi-experimental design to study factors affecting low-income and “at-risk” students’ likelihood of success with the purpose of identifying academic and socioeconomic gap-closing strategies.

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