Delusions of Merit

We Americans believe so deeply, with such ardor, in the idea of “merit” that it’s become a veritable national religion — one that ultimately deludes us and gets in the way of creating the very society we claim to want.

That’s one of the central themes of a provocative new book, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl.

If meritocracy is our religion, then their book amounts to a Martin Luther-style call for reformation:

“College should enhance students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, preparing them to find good jobs and contribute to society — not just further codify their existing prestige.”

Instead, they write, “we focus almost exclusively on higher education as a consumer good that confers a social advantage.”

That’s the higher ed that we see in the U.S. News rankings or the Varsity Blues scandal.

Say what you want about the term “meritocracy” — coined, we know, to skewer the very idea itself — The Merit Myth argues we have a meritocracy in name only, a nation where our chances often depend much more on where we start out than some innate talent. “We’re left with a detached leadership class propped up by privilege and overconfident in its own deservedness.”

A couple of stats that jumped out regarding the two-tiered system we’re creating:

  • Sixty percent of the students in the top 200 colleges come from the top quartile of family income. (Think of that as roughly $115,000 a year.)
  • Among students scoring above 1250 on the SAT, 52 percent of the affluent ones go onto a selective college compared with 38 percent of those from the bottom three income quartiles.

“We currently set aside seats in the top colleges for students who already have the most advantages — the equivalent of reserving beds in the best hospitals for the healthiest people.”

Carnevale and his co-authors offer a number of reform recommendations, among them:

Require a minimum percentage of low-income students

Mandate that every college enroll at least 20 percent Pell Grant recipients (nationally just under a third of students qualify for a Pell Grant). About a third of the country’s 500 selective colleges fall short of that mark right now.

“Elite colleges have the means to make change, they just lack the will.”

Shift our focus from institutions to programs

Making more consumer information available around specific majors and their career outcomes would improve competition and efficiency.

“The institution-based method for sorting higher education is very convenient for admissions decisions, fundraising, motivating alumni, selling sweatshirts, and, especially, ginning up interest in intercollegiate athletics. But it speaks very little to the main reason people go to college: to get a degree that will help them get a job.”

Make 14 the new 12

“Throughout our nation’s history we’ve repeatedly raised the bar in defining how much education Americans need…. 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.”

The Merit Myth explores, as well, how the seeds of this issue — our tension between democratic egalitarianism and liberal individualism — were planted at the founding of the country.

In 1813, years after they were both out of the White House, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams about his desire to use the education system to elevate a “natural aristocracy” of the virtuous and the talented, contrasting it with Europe’s “artificial aristocracy” based on heredity.

In Adams’s response, you don’t have to squint too hard to see 200-plus years into the future — to see alumni arguing in favor of legacy admissions, parents paying for private SAT tutors, internships secured through a friend at the country club.

This natural vs. artificial distinction, Adams said, was a mirage, merely a spot along an inevitable progression. Today’s “natural aristocrats” would fight to preserve that advantage for themselves and their children.

“Artificial aristocracy,” Adams wrote, “and monarchy, and civil, military, political and hierarchical despotism, have all grown out of the natural aristocracy of ‘virtues and talents.’”

+ More reading: Carnevale talks with The Hechinger Report about the book and how the coronavirus could change the landscape.

— Scott Smallwood

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Farewell to Andrea

This week marks our last week with Andrea, our very first Open Campus intern. We were excited when she agreed to jump into the unpredictable world of startup life with us. Little did we know we’d get to navigate the upheaval of a pandemic together, too.

Needless to say, we’re going to miss her! Before Andrea heads off to her next internship — at the Kansas City Star — she tells us what’s struck her most about covering higher ed these past months:

Before starting this internship, I assumed most colleges acted the same when solving problems. The pandemic, especially, illuminated how wrong I was. Colleges sent students home at different speeds and offered a varying range of resources for people in need of better internet connections, mental health services, and paychecks for jobs they could no longer work.

Colleges and universities often say they value their student body above anything else, but whether or not they provided immediate resources and support for all students amid a crisis, to me, showed if they actually live up to those statements.

I also learned that large endowments can’t just be spent all in one place and that even Harvard needs to cut costs during an economic downturn.

Most of all, I was surprised by the people I met along the way. At my first higher education conference, I realized that administrators are real people that I could walk up to and not just figureheads with whom media-relations officials would give me five minutes if I got lucky.

In fact, most of them were happy to talk with me. Many of them work at colleges that aren’t covered as much on the national level as a Top 20 university or a public flagship, and they wanted the opportunity to spread their ideas (and their names), too.

That’s why it’s so devastating to see reporters and beats like higher education cut at local news outlets across the country. Institutions need journalists to hold them accountable but also to report when they do good for their community, both on and off campus.

I’ll be taking what I’ve learned about higher ed trends back to my campus paper this fall, but hopefully when I graduate in a few years there’ll be far more opportunities for local beat reporting jobs.

While a lot of news about the journalism industry is bleak, there are also lots of people and new organizations working to strengthen local news across the country.

I think they’ll make it happen. If nothing else, my career sort of depends on it.

— Andrea Klick

The Latest from the States

Sacramento, Calif. (Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash)

We’re keeping tabs here on what’s happening with public higher ed in every state. Here are some recent updates:

  • To counter a potential $50 million budget shortfall, the University of Delaware will lay off more than 1,100 part-time employees, mainly undergraduate students not on work-study.
  • The University of South Carolina’s president, athletic director, and three highest-paid coaches will take 10-percent pay cuts in 2020–21 to save the university about $1.2 million. The university is also considering furloughs.
  • State agencies in Washington, including public colleges, were asked to create budgets to show how they would account for state funding cuts of as much as 15 percent.


The Covid-19 Census Could Cost College Towns Millions

The National League of Cities and several other municipal and higher-ed groups are lobbying Congress to set aside funds for college towns to conduct a population recount next year, so they can amend the numbers being recorded during the pandemic. (Chronicle of Higher Ed)

Her Newark High School Helped Get Her to College. Can It Keep Her on Track During the Pandemic?

Nationwide, more than a quarter of first-year college students — and a third of black students — don’t return for their second year. Now, the coronavirus has unleashed new obstacles, testing the strength of student supports. (Chalkbeat)

FAFSA Completions Decrease in Ohio, and Nationwide, Amid Coronavirus

Completions of the federal student-aid form are down the most from a year ago in rural and small-town public schools. In Ohio, there was a 6.4-percent drop at rural schools and a 7.3-percent drop at small-town schools. (Columbus Dispatch)

Texas Community Colleges Support Students Beyond Education in Pandemic

One professor said the pandemic pushed many of her students to one of two extremes: either scrambling because they lost jobs, or working more hours than ever in health care or grocery stores. (Texas Tribune)

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