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Acknowledge the myth of meritocracy

Systemic change is necessary to dismantle barriers of opportunity.   |   Maddi Seyfarth/THE CHIMES

 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meritocracy as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” This idea of living in a society where individuals can get ahead based on hard work and merits sounds great if only if it were real. Students should work hard and strive toward their goals regardless of their background and their circumstances — however, it is important for all people committed in the intellectual pursuit of gaining knowledge to acknowledge the barriers that continue to challenge students from a less privileged background.

Acknowledge the barrier

An ingenious undertaking called The Equality of Opportunity Project gave Biola University a rank of number 304 on a list comparing students from the one percent wealthiest households with students from the bottom 60 percent. According to the study, 2.8 percent of Biola’s student population are from the top one percent — households that make more than $630 thousand a year. 27.8 percent of Biola’s students are from the bottom 60 percent — households that make less than $65 thousand a year. While Biola is nowhere as close to schools such as Washington University in St. Louis or Colorado College when it comes to the large divide between privileged and less privileged students, it is necessary to understand that simply working hard enough will not necessarily mean success in the long run.

Some students will not be able to take unpaid internships or do extracurricular activities simply because they do not have the same access to the financial resources and connections more privileged students have access to. According to an article by The Guardian, “Unpaid internships, by definition only open to the rich, now serve as gateways into the most prestigious and best-paid jobs.” According to Peter Scott, the author of the aforementioned article and a professor at the Institute of Higher Education, “Precisely because universities are such pivotal institutions in a meritocracy, they have a special responsibility to maintain equality of opportunity.”

An equal opportunity

Members of this current generation of students are more likely to have a favorable view of affordable higher education simply because this generation will have to deal with student debt almost unprecedented in the modern history of higher education. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation did not have to deal with student debt and loans to the extent millennials do. At the end of World War II, countless veterans received a college degree through the G.I. bill and subsequently purchased homes and started families after establishing a career.

Students should support each other in times of difficulty but students should also acknowledge the myth of meritocracy. The student debt crisis will likely make home ownership and other financial ventures more difficult compared to the experiences our parents and grandparents experienced during their time. Simply working hard enough is sometimes not enough. Some students will not be able to take an internship for financial reasons. Others will expend precious energy in looking for their next meal or trying to find a way just to get by. The purpose of higher education aims to provide students with the opportunity to achieve social mobility. Tanner Howard writes in The Jacobin about how his experience at Northwestern University proved how, “Elite universities will never offer genuine, mass opportunities for advancement for working class people.”

Biola is not an elite university such as Northwestern, but that does not mean we should not try to acknowledge the myth of meritocracy and find creative ways to provide an equal opportunity to all students.

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