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White People Support Academic Meritocracy When It Benefits Them, Study Suggests

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Do white people only support traditional definitions of meritocracy when it benefits them? A new study suggests so.

University of Miami professor Frank L. Samson looked at the idea of meritocracy through the lens of admissions standards in the University of California system. He found that white participants changed their ideas of what was meritocratic based on what benefitted white, as opposed to Asian-American, applicants.

After learning whites made up a majority of students at a school, half of the study's participants were asked to evaluate the importance of academic achievement when they were assessing university applicants. The participants related that universities should place high value on an applicant's standardized test scores and class rank.

Other study participants were told that Asian-Americans are disproportionately admitted to the school. These participants related that less weight should be placed on an applicant's academics.

The study concludes that, “the shift to an Asian American plurality provoked a reaction that caused white evaluators to create an altered standard when weighing the academic merits of college applicants.”

These results come at a time when affirmative action -- designed to further the opportunities of groups that have been historically discriminated against -- is being hotly debated. Some opponents of the practice argue that admissions should simply be based on concrete, meritocratic standards. However, as the study reveals, what is considered meritocratic to some may simply be based on what benefits the group with whom they most identify.

Minority groups are expected to become a majority of America's population by 2042, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As the study notes, this demographic shift may force universities to learn how to guard “against pressures from the dominant group reacting to a perceived drop from their dominant group position.”

The study, "Altering Public University Admission Standards to Preserve White Group Position in the United States: Results from a Laboratory Experiment," was published in the Comparative Education Review.

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