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April 7, 2015

Stanford & the Myth of Meritocracy.

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This year, Stanford University was the most exclusive university in the country. Last week, the institution created a new space for equity and access to collegiate education.

It told its 2000 admittances that if they came from households earning less than $125,000, there would be no out-of-pocket costs for these new collegians. In one fell swoop, Stanford made news because students will be able to access higher education more readily, complete classes without insurmountable debt and make the decision to pursue higher education for those not from wealthy families an easier one.

During my time pursuing a Masters in Education, the words equity, adequacy and access permeated pedagogy, climate and curriculum. These terms haunt the United States educational system. Simply put, our schools have historically lacked equity, adequacy and access to all different types of learners, most specifically students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners.

During my masters program, I had the opportunity to observe many schools in Los Angeles unified school district. Additionally, before starting my own company, I litigated on behalf of school districts throughout California. One thing is strikingly clear: those who deviate from the social, economic, physical, cultural and heterocentric normatives are not adequately served by our schools, leading to lesser job prospects, less access to higher education and a less probability of succeeding in higher education once enrolled.

What Stanford did this week is step toward leveling the playing field. Education is simply not a meritocracy. What Stanford did, by extending financial support to those admitted, is acknowledge poor students’ lack of fiscal fight. Through Stanford’s sizable endowment and commitment to diversity, it can combat the insidious myth of meritocracy. By encouraging students to matriculate, in spite of financial circumstances, Stanford acknowledges the truth about power, money and politics in higher education.

Every year I provide college counseling advice to poor underserved communities, as well as college counseling advice to upper middle class and wealthy communities. Although hardly a sample, the difference in dialogue between picking a school because it aligns perfectly with one’s interests, passions and preferences differ so much from dialogues about financial aid, work study and the intensive forms needed to acquire loans and services when admitted. For wealthier students, the stress ends at admittance, by and large. On the other hand, the stress, in many cases, amplifies at admittance for underserved and poor future collegians.

Stanford has alleviated a bit of distress for its new freshman, and it will subsequently attract a more well-rounded and diverse student body.

In choosing to face access to higher education, in particular elite higher education, head-on, Stanford has set a precedent for American higher education. This decision has done more to shape higher education policy than many in the last decade, and I hope there are more financial decisions that promote autonomy of the applicant, no matter who they are or where they come from.

To Stanford: From all those who help financially-struggling college applicants, bravo and thank you for bringing light to the issues facing the underserved.

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Author: Katie Schellenberg

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Stanford

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Katie Schellenberg