Meritocracy: Mission Accomplished?

Last week, the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote a column about “The Rise of the ‘Ordinary’ Elite,” people like Barack and Michelle Obama who climbed from humble beginnings, attended Ivy League institutions, and now are part of a meritocratic ruling class. Applebaum worries that we’re reaching the dreaded point, predicted by British novelist Michael Young, when “meritocratic elites” are resented by regular folks because under a system that fairly rewards merit and talent (rather than rewarding inherited privilege), those who lose out in the competition are made to feel it’s their own fault.

I often find Applebaum’s columns on human rights and foreign policy interesting and provocative, but her venture into education and sociology leaves a great deal to be desired.

Has higher education really produced anything approaching a fair meritocracy that taps into the talents of students from all sectors of society? Applebaum seems to think so. She writes, “most elite American universities have in the past two decades made the greatest efforts to broaden their student bodies. Because they can offer full scholarships, the wealthier Ivy League schools in particular are far more diverse, racially and economically, then they were a few decades ago.”

The data she cites? Beyond three data points—Michelle and Barack Obama and Clarence Thomas—you won’t find any. We know from Century Foundation research by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose published in 2004 that at the most selective 146 institutions, you are 25 times as likely to run into a student from the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population than the poorest socioeconomic quarter. That doesn’t sound like economic diversity or a fair meritocracy at work. And more recent research suggests a trend in the wrong direction.

Do inequalities in outcomes simply reflect differing capacities? New York Times columnist David Brooks has written: “The new inequality is different from the old inequality. Today, the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just out-compete them” But as Walter Benn Michaels has noted: “And if out-competing people means tying their ankles together and loading them down with extra weight while hiring yourself the most expensive coaches and the best practice facilities, he is right.”

New research by Carnevale and Jeff Strohl provides a fairly precise idea of just how heavy those extra weights are. On the math and verbal SAT (a 400-1600 scale), the least socioeconomically disadvantaged student is expected to score 399 points lower than the most advantaged. And while colleges talk a good game about considering obstacles a student has overcome in admissions decisions, research finds that most do not.

Throw on top of all this the wholly un-meritocratic (and un-American) practice of providing legacy preferences, and a nonlegacy student has to score another 160 SAT points to be judged on an equal basis with the children of alumni. As former William & Mary president Gene Nichol has written, “No one actually believes that an admissions program committed to equality needs to ask: ‘Who is your daddy?’”

Affirmative action programs for students of color help address the issue of racial diversity, but they tend to benefit the most advantaged minority students, and as Peter Schmidt has written, “rich white kids” continue to win out in the admissions game.

So before we start worrying about the dilemmas posed by Michael Young’s vision of meritocracy, let’s not claim “mission accomplished”

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