We study the impacts of changing school admissions systems in higher education. To do so, we take advantage of the world’s first known implementation of nationally centralized admissions and its subsequent reversals in early twentieth-century Japan. This centralization was designed to make admissions more meritocratic, but we find that meritocracy came at the cost of threatening equal regional access to higher education and career advancement. Specifically, in the short run, the meritocratic centralization led students to make more inter-regional and risk-taking applications. As high ability students were located disproportionately in urban areas, however, increased regional mobility caused urban applicants to supplant rural applicants from higher education. Moreover, these impacts were persistent: four decades later, compared to the decentralized system, the centralized system continued to increase the number of urban-born elites (e.g., top income earners) relative to rural-born ones.
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