The Fallacy of Meritocracy on America’s College Campuses

A new book shows how our higher ed system favors the rich. Will COVID-19 make the problem even worse?

The summer’s protests have made wrenchingly clear the systemic obstacles Black Americans face in almost every aspect of their lives. Discriminatory labor practices relegate Black workers to lesser jobs or lower wages than their white counterparts. Racist housing and lending policies segregate Blacks in substandard neighborhoods and deprive them of chances for homeownership. Black Americans suffer from unequal access to health care, schooling, transit and justice, with tragic and devastating consequences.

The Merit Myth

The Merit Myth:
How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl, New Press, 320pp.

And no less complicit in this creating this reality, a recent book argues, is America’s higher education system.

In The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America, veteran researchers Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl argue that America’s top colleges and universities uphold a biased infrastructure that props up students from the one percent of U.S. families to the detriment of everyone else. “They are run by, serve, and perpetuate an elite whose members often have seen their self-interests advanced by excluding other segments of the population from political and economic power,” the scholars write.

As a consequence, societal equity is impossible. Without a top-to-bottom reform of these institutions, the authors contend, the nation will keep falling short of its promise to offer equal access to opportunity.

While America’s elite colleges and universities have carefully cultivated perceptions that they’re engines of social mobility, bringing together the nation’s brightest minds from all backgrounds and corners of the country, the students most likely to attend these schools are overwhelmingly wealthy and white. Students from the richest one percent of families are 77 times more likely to go to an Ivy League school than a child from the poorest fifth, according to researcher Raj Chetty. Black students are underrepresented at all but nine percent of the nation’s 101 most selective institutions, a new report from the Education Trust found.

According to the Merit Myth, that’s no accidentIn pursuit of institutional self-interest, prestige, and money, these schools have deliberately chosen admissions policies that prioritize affluence over true merit, all the while cloaking their decisions with what the authors call a “veneer of meritocracy.” As a result, the Merit Myth argues, higher education “serves to compound the advantages or disadvantages that people have as children.”

Colleges and universities are segregated by race and class, and the ones that most racial minorities rely on for self-advancement are too underfunded to prepare their students for success in a global economy. America’s elite universities don’t promote social mobility; they stifle it, widening income gaps and social divisions. “College,” the authors write, “has become the capstone in an inequality machine.”

The Merit Myth tackles three ways in which the mythology of “merit” has allowed biases in American higher education to flourish. The first such myth is that of the “American Dream” itself—the dogma that anyone who “works hard and plays by the rules” can succeed in the U.S. economy. The truth, the authors say, is that even from its founding, America has never been a meritocracy, established as it was by men who professed that “all men are created equal” while turning a blind eye to slavery.

Given this historical hypocrisy, it’s perhaps no surprise that the University of Virginia—the nation’s first “public” university, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson—is today inaccessible to most students, with a reported acceptance rate of 26 percent.  In 2017, as Carnevale and his colleagues point out, more than two-thirds of the college’s student body comes from the most affluent fifth of U.S. families.

The second myth, where the authors spend the bulk of the text, is the notion that elite colleges’ admissions processes can fairly discern the best and brightest students from the rest. In reality, the authors charge, elite colleges’ admissions processes are little better than a masquerade aimed at hiding their biases toward affluent applicants who can best afford to pay sky-high tuitions.

Especially egregious, the authors say, is the higher education system’s continued over-reliance on standardized tests such as the SAT. (The test’s developer was an outspoken eugenicist noted for a 1923 treatise on the superiority of “Nordic” Europeans.) “From the very beginning, the tests functioned as a political dodge, giving a false and superficial appearance of scientific validity to bias rooted in race, class, and gender,” the book says.

Even as more schools have become “test-optional,” both in response to charges of bias and the impossibility of administering standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic, Carnevale and his colleagues warn the gesture could be an empty one that ultimately benefits colleges more than students. For one thing, test-optional policies could “entice larger numbers of students to apply,” thus lowering acceptance rates and making colleges even more selective. Secondly, “[b]ecause applicants with lower SAT or ACT scores typically withhold such information, the policies skew upward the average test scores of entering classes.”

This is one of several ways that Carnevale and Strohl, leading figures at Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce, and Schmidt, a seasoned journalist, use their collective inside experience with higher education to expose the myriad ways in which elite colleges have institutionalized the biases in their admissions processes. These include the practices well-known to favor affluent students, such as “early action” and “early decision” acceptances for students who can commit to attendance without financial aid, as well as legacy admissions for children of alumni.

The trio also look at more obscure—and eyebrow-raising—practices like “admit-deny,” where an academically stellar low-income student is accepted but denied the financial aid necessary to allow them to attend. This gives colleges the benefit of saying they’ve admitted low-income students without actually educating them. Many schools have also come to rely on “enrollment management” software, which allows institutions to “mask a deliberate choice made in pursuing their institutional interests” by tweaking whom they recruit, what mix of students they admit, and how much financial aid they offer.

Most troubling, the authors write, is the “shadow” admissions processes many schools run for students who have cash and connections—what admissions officers call a “hook”—but maybe not the academic chops. This second track is for “insiders–children of alumni or employees–as well as athletes, people tied to powerful politicians or generous donors and other applicants.”

One result of this insider advantage is that a shockingly large share of seats at elite schools are going to decidedly mediocre students—and crowding out more worthy applicants. According to the Merit Myth, as many as 60 percent of all seats in the most selective colleges go to students from the most affluent families. Of these students, they report, “46% would not have been admitted if required to meet a minimum test score of 1250 on the SAT.” This fact alone should cast doubt on how schools define “merit” in deciding whom to admit.

A third myth of merit addressed in the book surrounds the colleges themselves and their conflation of “prestige” with true worth. Here the authors blame the US News college rankings for setting off an arms race among institutions to game the rankings to their advantage, particularly by excluding students who don’t contribute to the aura of exclusivity that US News rewards. (This is the reason the Washington Monthly created its own rankings system in 2005—to reward the schools that were doing the most to serve their students and their communities.) For example, South Carolina’s Clemson University boosted its US News rankings by reducing its enrollment and increasing tuitions to hire more faculty. “We are more elite, more white, more privileged,” said university officialCatherine Watt, who is quoted by the authors explaining Clemson’s rise.

At times, the Merit Myth paints with too broad a brush. Some readers might be tempted to conclude that all elite schools behave with sinister motives, exploiting Americans’ belief in meritocracy to serve selfish institutional ends. In fact, the book does take pains to point out a few efforts by schools such as Vassar, Amherst, and Franklin and Marshall to increase the share of low-income and minority students they enroll.

Still, the authors are right that the merit myth is a pernicious one. False measures of “merit” degrade the worth of groups who don’t fit arbitrary metrics. They justify feelings of entitlement—even if unearned—by those who do. Higher education’s façade of meritocracy also allows colleges to paper over any number of sins. Worst of all, the mirage provides a handy defense against reform and enables the acceptance of inequality as an inevitability.

Carnevale, Strohl, and Schmidt acknowledge that the entrenched interests of those who currently benefit from the status quo will be formidable obstacles to the systemic change they insist needs to happen. This doesn’t stop them, though, from offering an ambitious and excellent blueprint for top-to-bottom higher education reform.

Among their proposals: end legacy admissions; require all colleges to admit at least 20 percent Pell recipients, which the authors calculate would provide 72,000 more students a chance to attend a selective colleges; make the first two years of college free; and encourage college admissions processes to reward “strivers”—students who’ve overcome obstacles such as poverty or other disadvantages to get to where they are. The authors also call on colleges and universities to “end the love affair” with standardized testing.

How likely are these reforms to happen? On the one hand, the pandemic has exposed societal inequities in stark terms. That will spur the urgent need for change when we come out of this crisis. On the other hand, colleges and universities have not been spared the financial fallout of the COVID-19 recession, and their need for survival will be no less pressing. If colleges were already vying to attract wealthy students before the coronavirus outbreak, that competition is only likely to intensify as schools hunt for revenues to stay afloat. One unfortunate but real possibility is that elite schools double down on their current path because of the sheer need for self-preservation, while at the same time, budget cuts decimate the options available to students. The net result under that scenario would be more stratification and inequality—in other words, even less opportunity for America’s young adults.

But as The Merit Myth points out, “Educational equity is our best hope for finding a new route forward as a country.” That means we have no choice but to refashion the system that has both facilitated the nation’s inequality but that also has the unparalleled capacity to reverse it.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.