Challenging Merit from a Place of Privilege

By Mitchell L. Stevens

Cover of The Merit MythThe Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl. New York: The New Press, 2020.

Merit is getting a tough rap these days. I have a growing stack of recent books that explain how the American ideal of education as a mechanism for rewarding accomplishment has grown troublingly, perhaps grotesquely, unfair. These books have some telling things in common. They have similar titles: The Tyranny of the Meritocracy (by Lani Guinier), The Meritocracy Trap (by Daniel Markovits), and The Tyranny of Merit (by Michael J. Sandel). They condemn the competitive dynamics that keep a handful of mostly private universities at the top of hierarchies of national influence and prestige. Their authors have secure appointments at Ivy League universities. Although I do not know them personally, I feel some kinship with these authors because I too have written about the problems of educational meritocracy, and I too enjoy berth at a university with excruciatingly competitive and officially meritocratic admissions.

I feel the same kinship with the authors of The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America. The Merit Myth is a carefully researched, empirically convincing, and fluidly written indictment of how youthful accomplishment is manufactured throughout childhood and rewarded by admissions-selective colleges and universities. The book takes advantage of the steady stream of applied economic research produced by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which Carnevale directs and where Strohl serves as director of research. It focuses on the fateful moment of transition from high school to college, specifically to admissions-selective institutions, when the cumulative advantages and disadvantages of growing up in a starkly stratified society are transformed into variable access to privileged social networks and occupational niches. The authors astutely recognize the longitudinal character of the educational sorting process. “The college game is fixed,” they write, “long before the selective admissions officers get involved, but college has become a capstone to an inequality machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes.”

This argument is expanded in subsequent chapters, which synthetically describe how race and class segregation in the United States, coupled with localized finance and governance of K–12 education, creates starkly different spatial contexts for the nurturance of children. A good deal of educational sorting is accomplished by the time young people finish high school, if indeed they finish. By the time they sit down to write their college applications, the pool of young people who meet even minimal criteria for admission to selective colleges heavily skews white, Asian, and upper middle class.

The undergraduate-admissions round of the education tournament is largely meritocratic, if by that term we mean that admissions decisions are based largely on measurable attributes of youthful accomplishment: curricular rigor, GPA, class rank, standardized test scores, and verifiable achievement in athletics, arts, or public service. Yet the ability to attain these accomplishments is shaped by childhood context, and admissions officers have few legitimate means of putting thumbs on the scale to remediate childhood inequalities.

Why can’t selective colleges do more to enhance admissions opportunities for educationally disadvantaged applicants? Here the authors are sensitive systems analysts. They explain that the US higher education system is a competitive and only very loosely regulated market, in which individual institutions have great latitude in determining whom they will admit. They also need to mind their bottom lines, and the great majority of US colleges and universities are dependent on tuition and fees for their survival. They are not at liberty to admit students solely on the basis of merit. Ability to pay matters too, even at well-endowed private institutions and at public institutions for which state subsidies have eroded incrementally over decades.

Colleges and universities must also mind their relative prestige. This is substantially defined by positions on third-party ranking schemes, which aggregate statistics describing students’ academic attributes and admissions selectivity, student-to-faculty ratios, and other institutional characteristics to produce deceptively simple scores of institutional excellence. Rankings provide yet another incentive for colleges to favor the already favored applicants who have strong academic numbers and to gin up application numbers so that they can turn away more prospective students and improve their selectivity rankings. Athletics contribute further to this reproduction of privilege by giving institutions additional incentives to admit applicants whose families have the means to invest in the production of excellence on the playing field as well as in the classroom.

Unlike many other higher education policy analysts, the authors of The Merit Myth have an admirable appreciation for history and its contingencies. They recognize that the US system evolved as “a system without a plan,” as my Stanford colleague David Labaree aptly calls it in his recent book A Perfect Mess. The highly federated structure of the US polity created conditions for a laissez-faire evolution of educational opportunity in which particular localities and interest groups were free to amass resources to serve their own constituents and competed with each other for patronage. State and federal coordination and funding of higher education came very late in the evolution of the system. After World War II, state legislatures and the US Congress made substantial investments in postsecondary education, and even as they did so colleges and universities retained considerable autonomy over whom they recruited and how they grew. This growth strategy—if indeed it could be called a strategy at all—was enormously generative for the innovation that made US higher education the envy of the world in the middle decades of the twentieth century. It also had a different moral cast during that period in economic history, when access to stable, well-compensated employment did not require attainment of a postsecondary credential.

By the end of the twentieth century, however, the conditions that made the system without a plan ethically tenable no longer obtained. Lifelong employability at a living wage had come to require a college degree. A nationwide tax revolt—which had begun in the 1970s as a response to stagflation and the redistributive accomplishments of government welfare policies—profoundly constrained the ability of state legislatures to raise resources for higher education (unfortunately, tax policies and politics are given only glancing reference in The Merit Myth). Tuition at public universities soared, along with incentives for them to recruit full payers from out of state and overseas. Competition for students, dollars, and prestige increased in the entire system, creating perverse incentives for institutions to favor the affluent and already accomplished in admissions decisions.

While The Merit Myth deftly characterizes these phenomena, it does not offer a plausible alternative to the current merit mess. Nor do any of the other recent books on merit. The mess is complicated, to be sure, but I have to wonder if this consistent failure to imagine different possible futures has something to do with the affiliations of the authors with universities like Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford. We all make our careers off the accumulated injustices of the current merit regime. Our own prestige, social influence, and incomes are tied directly to the wealth and selectivity of our employers. Our jobs give us the opportunity to teach some of the academically best equipped eighteen-year-olds on the planet, many of whom will go on to lives of disproportionate accomplishment and share some of the spoils with their alma maters. In short, we benefit from the system that we depict and decry.

Although I have no special acid for dissolving the current entanglement of wealth and privilege with elite higher education, I am optimistic that the growing chorus of critics of meritocracy might provide impetus for a renegotiation of the relationship between admissions-selective institutions and the American people. Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford all rely on the trust and benevolence of everyday citizens. The leaders of these universities sit atop tax-exempt billion-dollar endowments and have the privilege of crafting tax-free annual budgets. Their tuition and fees are buoyed by Pell Grants and federal loans, and government research funding is the anchor of their scientific portfolios. They—and we—owe the nation for our livelihood and influence. I can only conjecture about the social movements and policy programs that might calculate the tab for all that debt, and call it in.

Mitchell L. Stevens is professor of education at Stanford University, where he coleads the Pathways Lab. He is the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. His email address is [email protected].