Putting Merit into Context

Associate Professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo takes a close look at how students view merit at elite institutions

August 27, 2014
Photo of Oxford University in England

Back on campus after spending a year as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo sat down for an EdCast to discuss her recent work analyzing how students at elite institutions understand merit in admissions.

Warikoo, who is at work on a new book on this topic, found significant differences within two national contexts: the United States and England. Students in the United States, she notes, are more open to the concept of “collective merit” admissions — where  a person contributes something to the collective merit of the cohort — taking into consideration factors beyond pure academic performance, such as athletic prowess, race, or legacy status that adds to the overall diversity of the group. In England, however, students at an institution such as Oxford — where nearly 50 percent of the students graduate from private high schools — have a more straightforward view of student selection as being based only high academic performance. U.S. students also believe in calibrating evaluations of merit according to the opportunities a student has had, unlike British students

Warikoo also delves into the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin case and how affirmative action policies in higher education are likely to face further scrutiny in the near future.

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