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America: Land of the Individual

Further Erosion Of American Meritocracy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Tom Copeland

One of the principal features of America which have historically distinguished it from most of the rest of the world is the opportunity it affords its citizens. It’s the notion that if you have drive and ability, you can achieve greatness, no matter how humble your beginnings. It was that simple idea which drove tens of millions to our shores. Fundamental to that aspiration for upward mobility is the notion of merit: That what you build, the level of success that you achieve is on you. That very concept is under assault, seemingly daily now, by liberals.


This idea that we are responsible for our own success, in fact, can largely be said to distinguish the Republican and Democratic parties. Traditionally, conservatives have taken the view that individual responsibility, a strong work ethic, and keeping the government out of the way of the citizen’s quest for success lie at the core of achieving the American Dream.  Liberals tend to take the contrary view -- that we all (excepting straight white males) have been victimized by society in some way, are deserving of “free stuff,” and need to have the government “spread the wealth around.” Who can forget those immortal words spoken by Barack Obama to “Joe the Plumber” during the 2008 presidential campaign?

The beauty of the free market system is that nothing can hold back an individual determined to achieve prosperity through honest pursuits if only given the running room. Those who are blessed to live within its confines discover that their personal limits are only defined by what they themselves choose to be delimiting. 

Talent? We all have it in some form or fashion, perhaps dormant, perhaps undiscovered. It may be analytical. It may artistic. It may be athletic. It may be entrepreneurial.

Drive? Everyone decides for him or herself how much energy they are willing to devote to achieving success. The old saw goes that if you enjoy what you are doing, you never work a day in your life. It's a lot easier to conjure up drive if joy accompanies that to which the drive is directed. It's even better if other people want, and are willing to pay for, what the drive is producing.


Does luck play a role? Absolutely. Some of us are born with advantages conferred on us by our family circumstances. A small portion of our population has wealth, which enables children to go to better schools, get tutoring, play on expensive club sports teams. Others are born with advantages conferred by our Creator: high native intelligence, great looks, athletic or musical ability. That is simply the luck of the draw, the lottery of the uterus if you will.

But luck is not solely, or perhaps even predominantly, determinative in the success that we ultimately achieve in this world. Given the choice, I’d hire an employee with a great work ethic and competence over one with better credentials on paper, but evidencing no particular drive to succeed.

This brings me to yet another effort, in a decades-long effort, to erode the signal role that merit plays -- and should play -- in our society. As first reported in May by the Wall Street Journal, the College Board, which administers the SAT, had plans to generate an “adversity score” for each individual student taking the college entrance exam.  The score would be based on a formula incorporating 15 different factors relating to the student’s socio-economic background, such as the poverty and crime rates in the student’s neighborhood, median household income, advance placement course availability, et al. The scores were calculated for students last year and sent to 50 colleges and universities in a beta test, along with the students’ SAT scores. 


The problem I see with this concept is that the SAT is meant to serve as a snapshot of a student’s level of proficiency in a discrete number of areas focusing on math and reading comprehension. It is designed to provide college admissions officials with an apples-to-apples comparison of millions of high school juniors and seniors, who all take the same test on the same date. The College Board’s role is and should be, merely to administer and process this test, so that colleges have a common metric of ability by which to judge a student against the entire population of student’s his or her age. That is all.

The adversity score appears to be an effort by the College Board to inject itself into politics, to “level the playing field”, in its eyes, using subjective criteria that cannot possibly capture all of the events and circumstances that impact a student, for better or worse, in their life. It is ripe for abuse by virtue-signaling do-gooders with a political agenda. That is reflected in a comment made by David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, who told the Journal, “We can’t sit on our hands and ignore the disparities of wealth reflected in the SAT.”

Should external circumstances be considered by college admissions officials? I think so. But that can be achieved by examination of the student’s application, where extracurricular activities are listed, student employment history provided, parents’ income indicated, essays written by the student where she can make her case about why she deserves admission. 


I’m guessing that most college admissions officers have a pretty good sense of socio-economic conditions that prevail in most school districts and are discerning enough to make decisions based on the copious amount of information students (and parents) are already required to provide. Having gone through this exercise with my own three children, as well as myself, I know that SAT scores are only one factor that figures into a college’s admissions decision. And the score on an SAT is not necessarily a reliable predictor of a student’s future success in college.

After facing severe backlash from colleges and parents, the College Board this week dropped the adversity score program. No doubt it will one day be resurrected, as the same idea was attempted 20 years ago by the College Board in something called the Strivers program.

As high-achieving Asian students who are suing Harvard University over alleged discriminatory practices due to the “imbalance” of too many Asians qualifying for admission have discovered, even in America, the Land of Opportunity, there are limits to how far merit will be allowed to take you. We must be careful as a society when attempting to “help” one demographic at the expense of another. We should, to the best of our ability, allow merit to rise to the surface naturally.

William F. Marshall has been an intelligence analyst and investigator in the government, private, and non-profit sectors for more than 30 years. He is a senior investigator for Judicial Watch, Inc. and a contributor to Town Hall, American Thinker, and The Federalist. (The views expressed are the author’s alone, and not necessarily those of Judicial Watch.)


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