Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Many Friday mornings, the University of Maryland greets admitted students with a fanfare of trumpets blaring the Maryland fight song. Admissions officers court students with every tool in their arsenal: red and gold balloons, tours through the posh Prince Frederick Hall, coupons for the Dairy. The luckiest applicants are even offered merit-based scholarships.
The goal is to lure the highest-performing, top-ranked students to the University of Maryland. The way this university recruits, evaluates and rewards its applicants is certainly strategic. Yet it is also inherently discriminatory.
This university admits applicants based on 26 review factors, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. It doesn’t just accept those with high GPAs, rigorous course loads and great SAT scores (though it weighs those factors more heavily, along with student performance). It takes race, ethnicity, geographic origin, family educational background and other factors into account to ensure a diverse class.
Still, the process rewards students who have had access to opportunity and resources. It’s been proven that student proficiency scores in grades 3-12 correlate more strongly with student demographics than with knowledge or success. Consider the countless reports of schools in majority-minority districts being chronically denied the funding and investment they deserve.
Under our current system, students who went to schools that provided AP classes, extensive extracurricular opportunities and tutoring or test prep are given even more resources once they are admitted to the university, compounding on the inequality present in our educational system.
The system concentrates the power of evaluating student qualifications in the hands of select admissions officers. These officers, often alumni of the university, make decisions on student merit that replicate the existing demographics of the university — demographics that are neither representative nor equitable, considering the population of the state as a whole.
At this university, centralized gatekeeping is particularly troubling, given the population of black freshmen has fallen to only 7.3 percent of the incoming freshman class, half of what it was in 2011.
If this taxpayer-funded university envisions itself as a place to harness the potential of students, produce new knowledge and transform the human experience, it needs to radically rethink the way it defines merit.
Harvard researcher Nadirah Farah Foley offers a promising proposal. She calls on universities to “think of merit as something that can be developed in anyone, rather than found only among the elect” and to use their resources to “cultivat[e] the best and brightest, as opposed to simply finding them.”
With Foley’s call to action in mind, this university should not just evaluate students on their past achievements but also on their full life stories and their future plans. Such a system is conducive to offering the support necessary to serve underrepresented and marginalized students in achieving their goals instead of leaving them struggling academically and financially.
Once students are admitted, financial aid to cover the cost of tuition and housing should only be given out based on need, to ensure that students’ educational and job prospects are not limited by their parents’ incomes or inherited wealth.
And the funding for merit-based scholarships should be replaced with a universal student fund that all students can apply to, not just the most talented incoming students. This would supply funding for research projects, internships or study abroad programs similar to how faculty and graduate students apply for grants to fund their research based on the project and their needs.
This revamped system would incentivize students to learn, grow and explore as much as possible while in college. It also ensures that resources are distributed based on need. An engineering student might not need as much of the financial support that a merit scholarship offers if they are working high-paying internships or jobs, but a journalism student working at an unpaid internship at a newspaper could definitely use the funding.
If colleges want to seriously think of themselves as “producers of value, not arbiters of merit,” to borrow Foley’s term, they must recognize our deeply unequal K-12 education system and radically shift admissions practices to avoid disproportionately rewarding students from privileged backgrounds.
Olivia Delaplaine is a senior government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.