I argue that the admissions process in the American system of higher education, especially at selective colleges and universities, resembles an engineering process by which schools turn their applicants into raw materials who fulfill the needs of the institutions. In doing so, colleges and universities undermine the meritocratic ideal that opportunity is determined by individual accomplishment and ability and not by pre-existing or structural forces. To frame this argument in light of current events, I begin my paper with an overview of the ongoing college admissions scandal. In order to support this argument, the first chapter develops a conceptual history of the term meritocracy, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s concept of “natural aristocracy” and tracing its evolution to today’s colloquial use of the term meritocracy—a term coined in 1958 in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy. The second chapter provides a historical overview of higher education in America. This reveals how the rise and stratification of the education system became entangled with the meritocratic ideal—an entanglement that persists today. In my third chapter, I explore the subjective criteria that has come to define merit at selective colleges and universities. In doing so, I reveal how the meritocratic ideal is challenged through the admissions process.
Plymouth Meeting, PA