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What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain


  • Natasha Warikoo

    () (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA)


How do winners of processes of meritocracy make sense of those processes, especially in the face of forceful public critiques of their unequal outcomes? In this paper I analyze the meaning-making with respect to merit in university admissions of White, native-born undergraduates attending elite American and British universities. I find that United States students support the “calibration” of evaluations of merit, and emphasize evaluations of applicants’ contributions to the “collective merit” of their university cohorts. British students espouse a universalist, individualist understanding of merit. While conceptions of merit differed across national contexts, students in both reproduced the notions of merit espoused by their universities. I conclude that in spite of a long history of student protest on college campuses, rather than engagement with symbolic politics on liberal-identified campuses, self-interest in status legitimation dominates student perspectives, ultimately reproducing understandings of merit that will reproduce inequality. The paper draws upon 98 one-on-one in-depth interviews with White, native-born undergraduates attending Harvard University, Brown University, and University of Oxford.

Suggested Citation

  • Natasha Warikoo, 2018. "What Meritocracy Means to its Winners: Admissions, Race, and Inequality at Elite Universities in The United States and Britain," Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 7(8), pages 1-17, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:gam:jscscx:v:7:y:2018:i:8:p:131-:d:162689

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Miles Corak, 2013. "Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 27(3), pages 79-102, Summer.
    2. Lisa J. Dettling & Joanne W. Hsu & Lindsay Jacobs & Kevin B. Moore & Jeffrey P. Thompson, 2017. "Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity : Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," FEDS Notes 2017-09-27, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
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    Blog mentions

    As found by, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Harvard Prof: Merit-Based Admissions "Reproduce Inequality"
      by Tyler Durden in Zero Hedge on 2018-09-10 23:05:22

    More about this item


    meritocracy; admissions; affirmative action; race; United States; Britain;

    JEL classification:

    • A - General Economics and Teaching
    • B - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology
    • N - Economic History
    • P - Economic Systems
    • Y80 - Miscellaneous Categories - - Related Disciplines - - - Related Disciplines
    • Z00 - Other Special Topics - - General - - - General


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