Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center focuses on challenges to the concept of meritocracy. A recent panel discussion in Chapel Hill highlighted that challenge.

Is meritocracy just? Just a short time ago, it was commonly accepted that it is the fairest way to determine who wins and who loses in the competition of college admissions. Now, it is one of the most hotly debated questions in higher education. Some believe it is just, as it encapsulates the American dream of “work hard and achieve your educational goals.” Others, however, believe meritocracy is inherently unjust and view it as a cut-throat system rigged against the lower and middle classes.

So, how much should innate intelligence and academic performance factor into who gains admittance into college? Some answer that it should have everything—or at least almost everything—to do with getting into college. After all, it seems highly intuitive that colleges should admit only those students who are the most likely to flourish on their campuses while maintaining high standards.

But a growing number of people wonder whether other non-cognitive factors such as students’ extracurricular activities, life experiences, and ethnic backgrounds should be given greater weight. Others reject the concept of merit-based admissions altogether.

These issues and more were discussed and examined at a February 19 panel event at UNC-Chapel Hill, organized by the university’s new Program in Public Discourse.

The event, entitled “Meritocracy in Higher Education,” featured four panelists: Anastasia Berg, editor of The Point, New York Times columnists Ross Douthat and Thomas Chatterton Williams, and New York University professor Caitlin Zaloom.

Williams was the only participant who supported meritocracy. …

… The most recurring concern among the panelists, however, was that a meritocratic system unfairly privileges the rich and well-connected. Indeed, some of the panelists claimed that gaining admission into a prestigious university isn’t about intellectual accomplishment, but economic advantage.