(Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash)

College admissions has long been described as a mix of art and science, as a balance between marketing and mission. Right now, given the financial realities the have-nots in higher ed face and the pressure for the haves in higher ed to diversify who gets in, the balance in admissions seems to be tipping more in one direction — toward the marketing side in recruiting students and the art in selecting them.

What is merit?

Last week, Scott Smallwood, the co-founder of Open Campus, sent me an article from Fast Company about how The Body Shop was moving to what’s called “open hiring”: no interviews, no background checks, no drug tests. When there is a job available, just answer three yes-or-no questions and the job is yours.

I posted the piece on LinkedIn to see what readers thought about the approach — and wow, did I get reactions — hundreds of them in total, both supportive and dismissive of the idea.

“I see a lot of people saying this is great who will never work with those who would be ‘open hired,’” wrote a retail sales manager at H&M.

“It is virtually impossible to properly screen people in 15 minute interviews. So, why even bother? Let people start and basically screen them on the job. If they do well — great! If not, let them go and replace them with a new batch,” wrote a senior software engineering manager.

Both hiring and admissions require sorting, an evaluation of what it means to be a “worthy” candidate.

However, it seems in hiring, much like in college admissions, we haven’t come to terms with the meaning of one word, merit.

  • Ask thirty students, parents, high-school counselors, and college admissions officers for a definition and you’ll get thirty different answers.
  • In her 2017 book, Who Gets In?, Rebecca Zwick, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writes “there is no universally accepted definition” of why someone deserves entry into college, especially a selective institution, where the seats are scarce and applications plenty.
  • Yet, Zwick writes, for many Americans, the definition of merit has come to “refer to academic excellence, narrowly defined.”

Survey says: Indeed, when the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2019 about eight admissions criteria colleges should consider, grades and test scores topped the list, by far, well above athletic ability, race, or first-generation and legacy status.

Source: Pew Research Center, 2019

The term “meritocracy” was never meant to promote a supposed academic purity.

  • British sociologist Michael Young coined the idea in 1958 and he intended it pejoratively.
  • His belief was that when the objective veneer of standardized testing and grades is stripped away, the advantages of a centuries-old class-based system remain.
  • Young’s satirical term has been co-opted in the world of admissions by the very people he was mocking — students and parents who believe that grades and test scores alone should determine who is accepted amid rising application numbers and falling acceptance rates.

Think about this:

  • Of the 26,000 domestic applicants for admission to the Class of 2019 at Harvard, 8,200 had perfect GPAs in high school.
  • 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores.
  • 2,700 had perfect verbal scores.

…but Harvard had only about 1,700 spots to offer.

Photo by Frans Vledder on Unsplash

How to measure merit?

“Problematic” is how a committee at the University of California described having just one quantitative measure of academic preparation if the nine-campus system dropped the ACT or SAT for admission. The panel delivered its long-awaited report earlier this month, in which it recommended that the system continue using standardized tests in admission — for now.

The big picture: A college application is an account of a student’s accomplishments — his or her “merit” — thus far in life. Yet the decision on whether to admit them ultimately hinges on a judgment about the potential of that teenager over the next four years on a college campus, not what they’ve done the previous four years in high school.

The bottom line: Most colleges know from their own internal data that two basic measures indicate whether students will succeed on their campuses: high-school courses and grades. That’s why nothing usually carries more weight in admissions than those two elements. Yet colleges ask for so much more in the application — essays, recommendations, extra-curricular activities — all in the name of evaluating the “whole student,” but also because we can’t come to agreement on what is merit.

What do you think should matter most in evaulating students in admission? How can colleges simplify the application process? Hit reply or drop me a note and I’ll feature some responses in a forthcoming edition.

Free Webcast: Join me and…

  • Yvonne Romero da Silva, vice president for enrollment at Rice University
  • Lynn Perry Wooten, dean at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management

…for a discussion about what’s on the horizon for admissions at both the undergraduate and graduate level on Thursday, February 27, at 2 p.m. ET Register here.

Texas readers: If you’re a senior university leader interested in student success and the role well-being plays in retaining and graduating students, I’m hosting a small dinner discussion in Dallas next month with Katy Redd of the University of Texas at Austin, who helps lead its Texas Well-Being effort. A few spots remain. If you want to learn more about joining us, hit reply.


Future U Podcast: Reporters’ Roundtable

In the latest episode, Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed, and Sara Hebel of Open Campus joined me in Phoenix to discuss this year’s biggest stories and most interesting trends in higher education.

Remaking Higher Ed in Pennsylvania

As a native of Pennsylvania, I’ve been watching the chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, Dan Greenstein, slowly draw a blueprint for a massive overhaul of the 14 state-owned universities over the last year. Now his plan is out, and it’s worth taking a look for how we should think about public higher ed in the 21st century: its mission, who it should serve, and who should pay.

Until next time. Cheers — Jeff

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...