The Merits of a Merit-Based System

The current college admissions system is inequitable and robs high schoolers of their childhood: a merit-based system is the solution.

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America is a country that preaches social mobility and opportunity, yet its educational system fails to realize these ideals. In today’s college admissions process, top schools look at a variety of factors beyond a student’s academic achievements, such as extracurricular activities and personal experiences. However, these standards put additional stress on students and favor students coming from privileged backgrounds. This “holistic” process has been promoted as an equitable way of evaluating a student based on many variables, but in practice, it is less fair than a merit-based system that focuses on grades and testing as a means of evaluation.

In principle, a holistic system is designed to consider the whole background and unique experiences of applicants. This allows students to be evaluated on more than just a test score. However, in practice, the holistic system virtually makes it a requirement to be good at everything; to have a competitive chance at a top college, students often have to spend many hours a week on extracurricular activities and volunteering while maintaining their grades. This often takes the enjoyment out of extracurricular activities, causing students to pursue activities because they feel like they have to. Because of this, holistic methods often lead to feelings of inadequacy in students. Mental health has been damaged by high expectations of students, with suicide being the second leading cause of death for high schoolers. The current college application system creates additional stress and time commitments for applicants, resulting in students overworking themselves and taking on too much at once. 

Multifaceted application processes can also create unequal opportunities for students because extracurricular activities are often costly. Extracurricular activities like music and sports are expensive, long-term investments that some families of lower-income backgrounds cannot afford. On average, a sport costs just under $900 annually for a single child. This means that certain extracurricular activities are unavailable to families that do not have the means to pay for them. Though there are ways to correct economic inequality in the holistic admissions process, it is impossible to give one group a leg up in a way that is completely fair. Granted, that is not to say that there is no inequality in merit-based systems. Students who come from backgrounds of financial privilege can more easily afford tutoring services, books, and electronics, but students coming from low-income families may have to work to support their families, leaving less time to devote to academics

Despite these flaws, merit-based systems have historically been the best way of ensuring equal opportunity. Stuyvesant High School’s admissions process is based completely on a standardized test: no resume, list of previous experiences, or special skills are needed. This has allowed low-income students to excel in a way that would not be possible otherwise: according to U.S. News & World Report, 48 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body is considered economically disadvantaged. However, there has been recent controversy over admission to Black students being in the single digits. Though the population of Stuyvesant is indeed disproportionately Asian, raising questions of equitability in representation, the racial segregation present in the New York City schooling system is not necessarily a question of systemic racism or unfairness in the admissions system itself, but systemic inequality in the quality of schooling. The solution to this issue is not to get rid of standardized testing but to ensure that schools in underserved areas are adequately funded and that the value of a strong education is emphasized from the beginning. Merit-based systems have been falsely typecast as stifling diversity and opportunity when, in reality, they are the surest way to raise people out of poverty. 

Moreover, students have much more freedom in a merit-based system. Students do not have to sacrifice their social life to maintain extracurricular activities; instead, they can pursue hobbies that actually pique their interests without catering their every move towards what might look better on a college application. Furthermore, students will not have to be the best at what they love: a soccer player does not have to be the best on their team, and a violinist can enjoy playing without having to devote their entire life to practicing. At the end of the day, kids can be kids.

However, there is also a danger in taking the meritocracy too far. South Korea, for example, structures its entire education system around a single exam called the Suneung. Students spend their entire schooling career preparing for this eight-hour test, which is the sole determinant of whether or not they get into a top college. Not only does this erase childhood, but it suppresses individuality by placing too much emphasis on rote memorization. It is also detrimental to physical and mental health. On average, high school students in South Korea spend almost eight hours a day studying in addition to school, leaving them very little time to sleep. The implementation of a merit-based system does not have to mean a complete disregard of other factors. Extracurricular activities are important for personal development and can be an indicator of passion and commitment. Additionally, school is not for everyone. Students who are less inclined to academics should still be able to find alternative means of success, but these things should not take precedence over academics in admissions. The admissions criteria for selecting students for an academically rigorous environment should translate into who is best fit for such an environment. The education system as a whole is by no means perfect, but a stronger emphasis on academic achievements would be a step in the right direction toward creating a more equitable system that gives all the opportunity to succeed through hard work.