‘The Merit Myth’

Author discusses his new book about how colleges admit and serve students.

June 1, 2020
 

A new book, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America (The New Press), challenges the way colleges admit and educate students. It calls for affirmative action to change, for colleges to adopt a range of policies to admit a more diverse group of applicants (with diversity defined to mean more than race), and for the United States to offer two years of postsecondary education to all.

The authors are Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; Peter Schmidt, the author of Color and Money and a former reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown center.

Carnevale responded to email questions about the book.

Q: What are some of the ways that colleges favor the white and wealthy?

A: Since the mid-1980s, when college became the most well-traveled pathway to economic and social empowerment, we have looked to our colleges to validate our belief that we’re responsible for our own destinies and that those who are broke or stuck in a lousy job have only themselves to blame. We have bought in to the idea that our colleges are legitimate social and economic sorting mechanisms because it validates our commitment to individual responsibility and merit. After all, a person has to do the homework and ace the tests to get into the best colleges and move on to the best jobs that confer wealth and power over others.

Fair enough? Not really. In a society where people start out unequal, educational attainment measured by test scores and grades can become a dodge -- a way of laundering the found money that comes with being born into the right bank account or the dominant race. The college game is fixed long before the selective college admissions officers get involved, but college has become the capstone in an inequality machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes.

On the long pathway from kindergarten to good jobs, the most talented disadvantaged youth don’t end up doing nearly as well as the least talented advantaged youth. A child from a family in the top quartile of family income and parental education who has low test scores has a 71 percent chance of graduating from college and getting a good job by their mid-20s. However, a child from a low-income family but with top test scores has only a 31 percent chance of graduating from college and getting a good job by then. And the numbers are even worse for talented low-income racial and ethnic minorities.

As educators we are all connected as interlocking gear wheels in the machinery of economic and racial injustice. Higher education is now the capstone within an educational system that sorts winners from losers and always invests the next education dollar in the winners. It magnifies the inequality dutifully delivered to it by the K-12 system and projects that inequality further into the labor market, creating new waves of advantage that guarantee the intergenerational reproduction of class and racial privilege.

Q: Your book is critical of "merit aid," grants to students who don't need the money to enroll. Why is that?

A: Merit aid is affirmative action for the upper middle class. It is money better spent on teaching, student services and counseling or on students who actually need it. The merit aid game is the keystone in the selective college business model. To keep rising tuition from driving away prospective students, colleges use merit aid to discount tuition prices that were already unsustainable even for upper-middle-class students. The merit aid game is simple: after enrolling as many fully-paying students as you can by admitting early applicants, international students and out-of-state students, use merit aid discounts to fill most of the remaining seats. Then add a hint of noblesse oblige with a few special programs for small groups of striving black and Latino students as well as some working-class and poor white students to keep the Pell Grant numbers respectable.

The merit aid strategy brings diminishing returns once it includes a near majority of a college’s students. In fact, it may have already exhausted its uses as a financial strategy: competing via merit aid has become costlier and less effective as selective colleges strain in a bidding war to counter each other’s offers.

Q: Should SAT/ACT scores continue to be used in higher education?

A: We should stop giving so much weight to applicants’ SAT and ACT scores or eliminate them altogether. In their place, we need to switch to diagnostic testing that measures students’ preparedness and potential to succeed in college rather than sorting them by race and class. The SAT and ACT are part of an educational shell game that hides class and race inequality under a scientific veneer. They measure privilege far more reliably than they measure ability to graduate. The tests are simply an easy means for selective colleges to sort through and reject applicants. They are a marriage of convenience between elite colleges and the College Board and ACT, two profit-making businesses masquerading as not-for-profit educational institutions serving the public good.

Among students in the upper half of the SAT or ACT test score distribution, minor score variations matter little when it comes to predicting graduation rates or career success. Students at selective colleges with an SAT score of 1000 to 1099 have a 79 percent graduation rate, only six percentage points lower than the 85 percent graduation rate of students with an SAT score of 1200 or above.

The standards-based K-12 education reform movement emphasizes the development of talent throughout the population, not the identification of innate aptitude among a select few. A stronger reliance on achievement tests than on tests that supposedly measure general aptitude would clarify the connection between college and K-12 standards-based teaching and learning, representing a step toward a comprehensive K-16 accountability system. College admissions testing would no longer be a high-stakes game of spotting trick questions in the SAT or ACT while beating the clock.

Q: How should affirmative action in college admissions change?

A: It’s important to keep in mind that “affirmative action” extends well beyond preferences based on race and ethnicity, and covers a wide array of policies that are much less controversial. The most controversial form of affirmative action in higher education -- the granting of extra consideration and a degree of preference to applicants who are black, Latino or Native American -- has been deeply divisive and been used as a wedge issue to pit poor and working-class whites against members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Nonetheless, supporters of such admissions policies are correct to point toward the continuing effects of deep-seated racism in American history as well as continuing racial biases and the general benefits of diversity on campus. At the same time, they tend to overstate the benefits of affirmative action as presently practiced in higher education and, in many cases, may feel threatened by and seek to squelch discussions of alternatives.

We agree with the civil rights lawyer and legal theorist Lani Guinier when she says that current race-based affirmative action policies primarily benefit the children of immigrants or upper-middle-class parents and produce “cosmetic diversity” that enables higher education institutions to dodge discussions of deeper systemic problems. On the whole, getting the enrollments of selective colleges to better reflect the nation’s population will require a major overhaul of college admission policies and a drastic reduction of inequities in our nation’s public school beginning when students first set foot in a pre-K classroom.

As an inadequate but pragmatic alternative, class-based affirmative action stands relatively immune to the sorts of legal challenges based on federal antidiscrimination laws that have bedeviled affirmative action based on ethnicity or race. Selective colleges can substantially increase minority enrollments by offering admission to students at the top of their class in heavily minority high schools, by simultaneously expanding and focusing their efforts to recruit minority students through the use of computer-assisted analysis of neighborhood and school demographics, by expanding outreach to underserved schools with the help of their alumni networks, and by awarding a greater share of their financial aid based on need rather than merit.

Q: How could the U.S. provide K-14 for everyone instead of K-12?

A: Throughout our nation’s history, we’ve repeatedly raised the bar in defining how much education Americans need. Students are no longer assured a living wage with just a high school education. The nation needs to face the fact that people now need at least two years of college to have access to economic opportunity in a complex modern society. It’s time to make the leap and think of two years of college the same way we once thought about four years of high school: as the minimum amount of education that all Americans should receive at government expense. We need to embark on a reform drive with the slogan “14 is the new 12.”

As a political argument, “14 is the new 12” represents a middle ground. It’s the political sweet spot between the abandoned practice of offering a vocational track in public high schools and the recent calls for free access to four years of college, which essentially ask less advantaged segments of the population to subsidize the college educations of children of the upper middle class. It eliminates the scourge of tracking because the high school degree no longer represents the final destination. A K-14 system would make it likelier that a clear majority of Americans would be college and/or career ready.

Of course, there are a number of barriers to creating this system given our current structure, which has traditionally siloed K-12 and higher education. A federal-state partnership would enable the federal and state governments to work together to fully fund postsecondary institutions and reduce the financial burden students face paying for college. Reforms to articulation and developmental education will also ease the transition for students. Counseling and student support services will need much more emphasis to connect students from high school to college and to careers and four-year transfer.

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