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Want to Define Merit? Good Luck

Los Angeles — All day long they wrestled with the meaning of merit.

On Thursday enrollment officials here discussed the term around which the admissions world revolves. How colleges assess and reward merit shapes the socioeconomic and racial diversity of students at selective colleges. But what, exactly, is merit? Should colleges redefine it? If so, how?

At a conference held by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, many speakers agreed that colleges must broaden the definition of achievement, potential, and “praiseworthy qualities” used to evaluate applicants. Anyone who expected to learn the secret formula for doing so would have left disappointed.

Members of the audience were asked to think hard, however. At times the discussion sounded more like a philosophy class—a good one—than a gathering of admissions officials.

Harry Brighouse, a professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of educational-policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said luck—or circumstances beyond an applicant’s control—plays a large role in his or her apparent accomplishments.

“Merit has this misleading sense for high-school students, for college students, that somehow they merit the merit that they have, and they don’t,” he said. “Nobody in this world achieves in any way without a lot of people putting a lot of investment in them.”

Instead of thinking about merit only in terms of rewarding individual excellence, Mr. Brighouse suggested, colleges must consider it in the context of the social good. “We should give extra weight to the good of those who have less,” he said.

In a nation where test scores alone don’t automatically determine admissions outcomes, an applicant’s “context”—his or her background and opportunities—complicates debates over who’s most deserving of a spot. A valedictorian with a 3.4 grade-point average at one high school might impress an admissions committee more than one with a 4.0 at another high school.

“The more descriptions, the more elusive the term,” Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said of merit.

Throughout the day, this question lingered: Is merit something students possess, or something a college bestows on an applicant?

S. Georgia Nugent, president emeritus of Kenyon College and a classics scholar, invoked Plato. “Is merit a single, stable good, the same thing at all times, in all places,” she asked, “or do we think of merit as situational?”

The language colleges use when describing merit matters, Ms. Nugent said. She and others questioned what kind of message the term “merit aid” sends to families, and how it shapes their impressions of the admissions process.

Students, Ms. Nugent said, often receive merit awards not because they necessarily deserve the grants but because colleges succumb to consumers’ craving for bragging rights that grants bestow—a good deal that others didn’t get. “The ‘me generation,’” she said, “are not big fans of the Robin Hood strategy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

One can’t discuss diversity without describing merit, and vice versa. So said Marianne H. Begemann, dean of strategic planning and academic resources at Vassar College.

She described the challenge of maintaining the college’s need-blind admissions policy, which was reinstated in 2007. That year, Vassar also replaced loans with grants for low-income students. Since then, enrollment of nonwhite students has increased to nearly 35 percent, up from 20 percent, according to Ms. Begemann.

“People will say, How can you afford that?” she said. “It’s not really a question of how can we afford it. It’s really a question of can we afford not to do it?”

Some colleges have reassessed the criteria they use for admission and financial-aid decisions. Jenny Rickard, vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound, in Washington, described how her institution had adopted a new financial-aid strategy for this year’s freshman class, lowering its discount rate substantially.

Yet every move an enrollment manager makes has a consequence. Puget Sound also saw a decline in its academic profile, and enrollments of first-generation and underrepresented students fell from the previous year.

Officials are now considering how they might define success to better reflect their brand, which emphasizes intellectual engagement and outcomes over inputs like test scores, Ms. Rickard said. To that end, the university has analyzed several years of data to see which factors best predict student success (first-year retention and performance).

Based on the findings, the university has changed its criteria for determining need-based and merit awards. Although Puget Sound conducts holistic reviews of applicants, considering factors beyond grades and test scores, it previously used only quantitative factors in packaging financial-aid offers.

But this year the university reduced the weight given to test scores and increased the weight for grades. To the mix it also added “fit,” which includes an assessment of a student’s leadership qualities and intellectual curiosity.

“We expect it to have a positive impact on racial diversity and retention,” said Ms. Rickard. She also described a possible trade-off: “It could affect our U.S. News scores.”

Tragic news, depending on how one defines institutional merit.

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