No one gets a trophy: Let’s talk about meritocracy


The idea of modern meritocracy has been living in my mind rent-free lately, especially because I am in the process of applying to colleges. What is meritocracy, you ask? Well, I am here to explain. Meritocracy is the idea that social and economic awards should be based on talent, achievement, and effort. Only the smartest kids should go to the Ivy Leagues, and only the best students should receive offers from top law firms, internships, or hospitals. The idea itself makes sense: If you work hard and are good at what you do, then you should be rewarded. Undeserving people shouldn’t receive spots better suited for more talented individuals, right? But who decides who is talented? Who decides who has the potential to become something great?

The idea of meritocracy as a whole defines the system we live in. Decades ago, admissions to elite schools largely depended on your family’s educational history (AKA legacy admits). This system was obviously flawed, so it transformed into the meritocratic system we have today. However, this meritocratic system still benefits the elite (and no one better mention affirmative action, because this is not what this article is about) in many ways. Parents living in places like New York and Boston pay hundreds of dollars per hour for tutors and put their children through grueling admissions processes just to get them into an elite kindergarten. I don’t blame them – every parent wants to do whatever they can to make their children successful, and an elite kindergarten leads to an elite elementary school, which leads to an elite middle school, an elite high school, and, finally, to the crème de la crème: an Ivy League Education. This catapults them into Goldman Sachs or another top-notch business of that nature. Those Goldman Sachs executives will then have children of their own and put them through the same process. It’s a never-ending cycle.

A college education is getting more and more necessary but, at the same time, college fees are getting higher and higher and acceptances are getting lower and lower. For instance, the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate was 71% in 1995, and, today, it is a mere 6.2%.

All of this poses a great problem for lower and middle-class children who can’t afford private tutors and prep schools. Ivy League universities accept more children from the top 1% than they do the bottom 60%, and only one in 200 lower-class kids receives the average SAT scores for admissions to Yale University. Does this mean that the children of the 1% are smarter, work harder, and are more talented than the bottom 60%? Absolutely not. They just benefit from the meritocracy trap.

However, the upper-middle class and the upper class are poorly affected by the meritocracy trap in some ways as well. Many upper-middle-class families make too much money to receive financial aid for college, yet not enough to afford the steep price of college tuition. As many of you know, prep school kids are often burnt out, stressed and depressed because of all the internal and external pressures regarding college and their futures. Many spend over five hours of their day on homework in middle school and high school (and no, apparently this is not normal). Students in elite schools have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as anxiety and depression. No one is expecting you to pour one out for the wealthy, but it is important to understand that every single person that participates in this system is disadvantaged, driven insane, and ruined in some way.

At this point you may be asking yourself: Is it worth it? Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t think that an education that I could get at schools like Yale or Harvard is any better than the education that I could get at the University of Connecticut. But the name of said institutions can open certain doors. For instance, some law firms exclusively hire from the Ivy League. 

After the eight paragraphs I just wrote trashing meritocracy, I think it’s important to mention that I do play into the system myself. I have gone to private schools throughout my life, and in five years, I might plan to go to some fancy law school and get a job at a fancy New York City law firm and then maybe even put my own children through the same terrible meritocratic process that I’m going through right now. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of immigrants, or because I’m not part of the white elite, or because I’m just an overachiever. I feel like I would be doing my ancestors a disservice not to play into the system. My parents didn’t come to this country and work this hard for me to be anything less than exceptional. And I know many other first and second-generation immigrants feel this way too. 

Regarding the white elite, I can’t properly speak for a group that I’m not a part of, but I can assume that part of what they are feeling is pressure from their parents, the world, and also maybe a bit of entitlement. Why wouldn’t they want to continue their ancestors’ lifestyle that they were so graciously awarded? As for the lower and middle classes, I can assume many of the individuals in these groups want to be awarded the same social and economic opportunities as those in the upper class. But as I’ve mentioned, it is extremely difficult to break into the system, get into those schools, and make those connections. If every group is in the system and wants to benefit from the system, but, at the same time, hates the system and is pressured to make the most out of the system, how can we possibly leave the system?