It is well known that Berkeley High School is an extremely diverse community, with 56.5 percent of its students considered minorities. This extensive diversity exists in part because BHS is the only comprehensive public high school in the city. Berkeley accepts all students who reside in Berkeley, regardless of academic performance or any other factors.
Unlike Berkeley, other cities have implemented merit-based admissions for some of their public schools. Merit-based admissions consider factors such as a student’s GPA and test scores before choosing which students are admitted. Those who are not admitted to the selective schools are placed in the city’s other public schools. While merit-based admissions for public schools must be explored with caution, they can foster many benefits for students who excel academically.
Just across the bay, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSF) has used merit-based admissions at Lowell High School for over 44 years. Among the nine comprehensive public high schools in San Francisco, Lowell is the only one to use merit-based admissions. Lowell’s long history of merit-based admissions has created a reputation for academic excellence, yet it has also raised questions about merit-based admissions’ impact on disadvantaged youth.
In 2020, Lowell suspended merit-based admissions, citing issues around COVID-19 and worries about diversity. This pause, however, was short-lived. In 2022, the school board voted to return to merit-based admissions for the foreseeable future.
Although this type of system can be harmful, merit-based admissions carry their advantages. For starters, merit-based admissions have been key in ensuring a rigorous academic environment. According to SFUSD data, disregarding academic performance led to a steep drop in grades for Lowell’s 2020 incoming freshman class. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, of the 620 students in the freshman class in 2021, 24.4 percent received at least one D or F in their fall semester, in comparison to 7.9 percent of freshmen in 2019 and 7.7 percent in 2020. It is evident that the lack of selective admissions led to the drop in grades.
However, while the academic advantages of merit-based admissions are compelling, the issue remains nuanced. While Lowell was a bubble of academic excellence, it was gravely lacking in student diversity. In 2019, before the temporary pause in selective admissions, more than 50 percent of students at Lowell were Asian, 17 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, and less than 2 percent Black. As a whole, SFUSD is 35 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Black. Clearly, Lowell has a disproportionate amount of Asian and white students compared to Hispanic and Black students. This lack of diversity is concerning for a school that has so much to offer academically.
While it might seem logical to throw merit out the window, schools must instead act with caution. As previously mentioned, when Lowell paused merit-based admissions, the incoming class’ grades fell drastically. Schools must tackle the root problems harming minority students, not remove merit-based admissions. Funding must be increased for all public high schools, and cities must work to better integrate all their schools in order to increase diversity.
It is clear that merit-based admissions present an opportunity for students to succeed in an environment of academic rigor. While we cannot ignore the ethical concerns of schools structured in this way, such as a lack of diversity and equity, we must not scrap them altogether. Student body diversity and the marginalization of students can be addressed in ways that don’t remove beneficial programs. Merit-based high school admissions benefit our society and our public schools because they provide students with opportunities to become academically successful, set students up for success, and allow them to excel in their studies.