Merit Debunked

One of the most insightful books about higher education in the past few years is The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America, by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl. It received a good degree of notice and mostly positive reviews, and was mentioned as one of Forbes Magazine’s best books of higher education, But like other recently published books on merit, the effort has not seemed to reverberate – no matter how coherent or compelling its argument. Did the pandemic re-rank our priorities, or is there something else going on with The Merit Myth and academia?

Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl are well-respected figures within the academy and in policy circles. Carnevale is Director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce; Stroh’s oversees research at the Center. Schmidt is a higher education journalist, author, and editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The picture they collectively paint is formed by data and facts. It is a damning indictment of elite higher education’s commitment to inclusion and social mobility. In relatively few pages, the authors explain the historical, economic and cultural forces that have driven much of how higher education operates for many decades. They explain how decisions are made, why decisions are made, and the consequences – in broad, challenging themes. While we may all in academic be working in support of common values (truth, quality, inclusion and student success, for example), our level of commitment – and the corresponding outcomes – vary widely.

Race and class are clear markers of division within higher education. The United States has two major kinds of higher education, the authors tell us: a small, well-funded elite system for the wealthy and mostly white, and for everyone else, those of color and less means, something different, with significantly less funding and support. We may talk of “higher education” as something coherent but it is far from unitary or even equivalent. The authors argue that, for the most part, higher education does little to address the gross inequities and divisions that exist in American society – housing, food, health, K-12 education – and through normal practice tends to exacerbate these differences them while convincing those that succeed and those that fail that the outcomes were “earned.” One key consequence of this is the public’s decreasing faith in academia. Another is the declining belief that everyone in America has an equal chance to advance.

While all of higher education is complicit in these challenges, the authors focus their effort on the more selective colleges. Systematically and with great clarity, the authors investigate how colleges and admissions processes favor those with means and sort out those who lack resources. They emphasize the impact of government policies and college practice: a subsidy for the wealthy and systemic under-funding of institutions and students of less means. They further examine the misdirected attempts to address these issues through legal action. Importantly, they do not see any evidence of meaningful changes coming from the more selective institutions, who they believe have become “obstacles to their own progress. They’re too caught up in dealing with market forces, too focused on short-term competition, and too insulated from the struggles of average Americans to see the big picture and what’s needed for the good of our nation and their own welfare in the long term.” It is a damning conclusion.

None of this will come as a major surprise to many of us who toil on college campuses, in-person or remotely. We know which students consistently tend to make it through and succeed. We also know that many who have challenges do not complete, or if they do, their journey is longer and much more complicated. And for those students of lesser means – we celebrate and rejoice for those who do make it through and complete, we know that they face great challenges. What The Merit Myth underscores is that sense of a tilted playing field is much more than a hunch, more more than anecdotal data, much more prevalent than a racist problem here or a misguided policy there. It is a systemic issue. In fact, the authors arguments collectively imply that so much of what drives higher education is so greatly compromised that it is difficult to imagine small reforms making difference.

Nonetheless, this powerful book ends with a list of reforms, mild changes that are in many ways extraordinarily reasonable and moderate. They include reworking the admissions system (no SAT/ACT, no legacy admissions), a requirement for a certain percentage of low-income students (similar to forcing real estate developers to set aside affordable housing when building large projects), some class-based affirmative action, measure colleges by the outcomes of their programs (not their admissions statistics or artificial rankings), and reconfigure out national thinking to a K-14 higher education system. All of these concepts are already part of the reform conversations taking place in higher education.

But how do we make these changes? And beyond a general appeal to fairness, what is the catalyst? Unfortunately The Merit Myth has no substantive answers for these questions. The book is a brilliant diagnosis, but not a prescription. And that, I think, is one reason limiting its impact. If we are to make improvements in higher education, we need more plans and arguments about the future – not critiques of the past or present. As the authors of The Merit Myth explain, there are very good reasons that current state of higher education is the way it is. And it will continue on its path, regardless of solid criticisms and inequitable outcomes, if the only reason for change is that we “should” do something better. “Should” in 2020 has lost much of its power. It is nowhere near enough to make for meaningful reform.

David Potash

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