The NY Times has an interesting editorial today arguing for a "broader definition of merit" in college admissions practices, taking up the now popular call to disregard (or at least supplement) SAT/ACT test scores. These tests were long only administered to a fairly elite group of high school students who knew enough to take them and could afford to do so, and now--while they're taken by a much broader base of students-- their scores are muddled by disparities in test preparation. In other words, rather than measuring simply what a student knows in terms of book knowledge, they also measure that student (and his family's) social and financial capital.
On that, I agree with the Times and all who make a similar argument.
Where we part ways is with regard to alternatives. The typical suggestion is for admissions to rely more heavily on high school coursework and grades. Coursework, at least, is a pretty strong predictor of college attainment. But if the goal is a "meritocracy" does this really get us closer? Shouldn't we take a step back and first figure out what we mean by encouraging "meritocratic" admissions to college?
A postsecondary education is hardly optional anymore. At least some form (be it technical training, an associates, or a BA) is needed to get a decent job, and perhaps even more importantly to feel like a valued member of society. Under such circumstances who doesn't merit admission to college?
One's high school grades and coursetaking certainly are partially reflective of effort and talent, but they are also substantially reflective of sheer luck. Does your high school or even your district offer an IB program? Do you go to school with a lot of other kids with high grades, or are your peers generally getting C's as well? How does your principal think about student achievement--are teachers who give all A's questioned? What about those who are "hard" graders?
My list could go on and on but my point is that social situations structure opportunity for coursework and good-grade-getting. These things are no less signals of social and financial capital as SAT/ACT scores are. We have to be honest about that.
If a college must narrow its pool of eligible students, and we acknowledge that there are few if any really "fair" ways to do so, then how about simply taking that eligible pool and selecting among them using a lottery? Let luck lead the way. Then you don't have to explain why student A is more "meritorious" than student B-- she's not. It was just dumb luck.
As an aside-- if colleges decided to do this, we'd be one step closer to being able to measure the actual value-added individual institutions provide. What an amazing contribution to society, and surefire way to encourage higher education to aim higher at serving students well. If your college would like to try this, feel free to send me an email.