American Meritocracy: A Tipping Point?

It will probably take many years before we will be able to grasp fully the devastation left behind by 2020’s perfect storm of pandemic and civil disorder. On Wall Street analysts have for months been assessing the damage done to the American economy, while others view with alarm and foreboding a new wave of radical challenges to the rule of law, backed in too many cases by government officials who should know better. To those of us in the world of higher education, it’s already evident that the wreckage suffered by our enterprise will be the worst since the annus horribilis of 1968. Even Harvard, with the world’s largest endowment—larger than the GDP of the thirty poorest countries in the world combined—is reporting a likely deficit of $750 million for the year and is sharply curtailing its activities. Colleges, universities, and technical institutes were already closing down permanently at a record rate when the coronavirus began shuttering higher education in March. It seems likely that the pandemic will only intensify the recession afflicting American higher education, which some analysts are predicting could last for a decade.

But the damage to university finances may end up being the least of our worries. The student uprisings of 1968 caused far more intellectual and moral damage to higher education over the long run than they did to physical plants and balance sheets. The “march through the institutions” of the soixante-huitards, the students radicalized by participation in the bombings, arson, and violence of that year, had a disastrous effect on the standards of higher education. The militancy of ’68 set in motion the politicization of science and scholarship we see all around us today. It seems inevitable that a great many of the locked-down students who have flooded into the streets to protest police violence in recent weeks will be similarly radicalized. Powerful emotions and the close bonds formed among the like-minded tend to do that. When the waters of protest recede, we can expect to find dangerous new cracks in the foundations of higher education.

One of those foundations is meritocracy. Universities exist in great part to promote meritocracy: to recognize and reward the talent and industry of those who can contribute most to the flourishing of our society. In a democracy, the principle of merit will always need to be balanced with the claims of equality, as Aristotle already observed in the fourth century BC. But radicalized educators and administrators over the last half-century seem always to be loading the scales in favor of equality and giving less and less weight to the claims of merit. The imbalance is now at the point of endangering the whole enterprise.

In our democracy, the conflict between merit and egalitarian sentiment is nowhere more obvious than in the mounting opposition to the use of standardized tests for admission to selective colleges. The most important such examinations have long been the SAT and ACT tests, each taken by around two million college applicants in 2019. The number of colleges requiring these tests for admission has been falling in the last decade or so, though the more selective schools have continued to require them. Critics on the left have long charged that the tests systematically disadvantage African-Americans and Hispanics. The situation is not getting any better, despite serious efforts to close the performance gap. Colleges that pride themselves on promoting social justice feel that they cannot allow the testing industry to frustrate their egalitarian goals, so they have been eliminating or deemphasizing the tests when choosing their incoming classes. Or they simply continue to discriminate quietly on the basis of race, finding ways around legal obstacles to the use of quotas.

Such practices generally entail discrimination against Asians, but the system of informal quotas used in many admissions offices is becoming more costly. Asian groups are now litigating to greater effect against universities that discriminate against them. Harvard so far has managed to fend off their most serious challenge, but not without receiving a serious black eye to its reputation. With the appalling rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in America, and with our universities’ increasing dependence on Asian students and donors, the kind of discrimination showcased by differential success rates on standardized tests is getting much harder to justify. Coalitions of minority advocacy groups have also been ramping up legal actions against the tests. Until recently, however, standardized tests have been considered vital to maintaining a school’s reputation for academic excellence. Given the universal plague of grade inflation and the vast differences in quality among secondary schools, more selective colleges depend on the tests to justify their claim to be enrolling an elite student body. Universities have thus found themselves between the rock of equality and the hard place of merit.

We may now be reaching a tipping point. In recent months, over a hundred selective colleges have decided to waive the SAT and ACT for 2021 applicants because of the difficulty of sitting the tests during the coronavirus lockdowns. Given the strong opposition to the tests that already exists in admissions offices, it will not be surprising if a large number of those schools choose never to go back to requiring the tests once the crisis is past. The bell-weather of the herd may turn out to be the University of California system, which a couple of weeks ago decided to phase out entirely the use of SAT and ACT tests for admission to its ten-university system. Once great universities like Berkeley and UCLA have cleared the way, lesser schools will feel authorized to follow the pack.

The move, significantly, was made by the UC Regents over the objections of its Faculty Senate, a body not known for its cultural conservatism. The Senate, concerned by UC’s collective reputational slide in recent years, defended the utility of the tests as predictors of academic performance and dismissed any idea that the poor showing of African-American and Hispanic students was the fault of test bias. Underperformance by minorities was more likely explained, the Senate’s task force reported, by poor high school preparation. The UC Senate’s arguments against biases in standardized tests were extremely rigorous and acknowledged the considerable progress made by the testing industry over the last several decades in eradicating racial biases. Their work inspires confidence. When opponents of the tests begin talking about the unconscious bias of test designers, we can be pretty sure that demand for racism has far outstripped supply.

The objections of some conservatives to the tests are equally misplaced. The principal one is that the tests lack rigor and assess “aptitude” rather than actual mastery of a subject. They test a student’s reasoning and communication skills, but not whether they have a sufficient quantity of knowledge between the ears. A common trope is to compare questions on the SAT with the far more difficult ones found on the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. Such criticism overlooks that grades on the gaokao are the only criterion used to decide which students will be allowed to attend which Chinese universities. In the U.S., the SAT or ACT is only one leg of the tripod that determines college admission. Colleges can also evaluate a student’s mastery of content by looking at high school grades or AP exams, and they can try to assess a student’s character, creativity, and other personal qualities via letters of recommendations or by giving weight to his or her extracurricular activities. Given the advantages wealthier students have in constructing the second and third leg of the tripod, a sane judge would conclude that standardized tests are in fact the most egalitarian factor in U.S. college admissions. High test scores are often the only way gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds can bring their merits to the attention of admissions officers in selective schools.

We are not living in sane times, unfortunately, and it seems inevitable that the SAT and ACT will gradually be abandoned, even by selective schools. Critics of the test have yet to inform us how universities might show their commitment to quality without applying some more trustworthy criteria of merit. Parents seeking reassurance that the enormous expense of the institutions their children wish to attend bears some relation to its quality are unlikely to be satisfied, in these straitened times, with slick marketing or nebulous claims to excellence. Whatever system of evaluation replaces the current one will have to find some reliable way to assess merit. The only alternative is to abandon the meritocratic ideal altogether.

Every crisis, we are told, is also an opportunity, and one would like to believe that persons of good will can seize the moment with as much energy as those determined to undermine our system. The current crisis of standardized testing could prove an opportunity to address other, more fundamental concerns about the moral quality of our elites that social critics have been pointing to in recent years. The basic questions we need to be asking are: What kind of merit should we reward? And what kind of equality do we want?

The defects of our governing elites today are all too obvious. They lack sympathy and concern for people unlike themselves; the quality of their practical reasoning is poor and depends too much on dubious science; they are unable to persuade non-elites to follow their lead or to appeal to the common good; they are too materialistic; and they have a strong sense of entitlement, unjustified by any contributions they have made to society. They all too often lack even basic decency and good manners. In other words, they are moral illiterates.

There are obviously deep cultural roots for ills such as these, but the situation is not helped by current testing regimes. It is not so much that the tests are unfair or ineffective at measuring the qualities they aim to evaluate. The problem is that no one has ever told high school students that the purpose of scoring well on tests and getting a college education might be something more than improving their career choices and future earning streams. They have been told that a college education will set them up for a better life, but “better” is defined as a life with more choices, more money and more power. Once in college they are encouraged to adopt a cultural outlook that makes them despise their home communities, their religion and often the parents who are paying their tuition. They have never been taught that higher education can make them wiser and better persons, that the acquisition of wealth and power should go together with love for family, community and country, or that education can nurture the life of the mind, a thing infinitely valuable in itself.

A change in college entrance exams cannot by itself alter the materialistic orientation of American schools, of course, but it could help send a different message to college-bound students. Tests like SAT and ACT that privilege only mathematics, basic science, reading comprehension and analysis of written evidence tell applicants that what colleges want are “smart” students. The word “smart” in contemporary university argot is a term of art for a person who is quick, articulate, and analytically sharp but has no particular ethical commitments; his or her mind is an excellent tool but nothing more. It is certainly not the highest power of soul, imparting a moral direction to an excellent human being. The change in vocabulary is significant. Before testing became a science and a business, the word colleges often used to describe the kind of student they sought was “serious.” A serious young person was one who knew the true value of higher education and had the discipline to do college-level work. The expression was descended from the ancient Greek term spoudaios, used by Aristotle to indicate a person with moral maturity and a firm grasp of the things that matter in life.

If we want college students who are serious, not just smart, we need a testing regime that sends a different message to college applicants. It ought to include the kind of subjects that build moral literacy and sympathy for others:  history (the teacher of practical reasoning), imaginative literature (the teacher of sympathy and imagination), oral expression (the teacher of persuasion), and moral philosophy (the teacher of character). These are subjects that high schools, “teaching to the test,” have increasingly neglected. Tests such as the CLT (the Classical Learning Test) already exist that can evaluate achievement in these fields. The result might be a more capacious notion of merit that would include the capacity to judge complex moral questions, to persuade others to choose the common good, and to set an example for those over whom one has authority.

We might also rethink what we mean by equality. College admissions officers today, especially at more selective colleges, have come to see it as their responsibility to right the wrongs of our society. They believe that African Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, have been the victims of systematic racism, and that colleges must contribute to a more equal society by admitting disadvantaged minorities in greater numbers than their individual achievements might warrant. Once established in high-earning jobs by virtue of their elite degrees, the downtrodden will be made whole and America, they hope, will become at last a just society.

This philosophy of college admissions amounts to a kind of luck egalitarianism, an attitude to equality typical of American progressive elites. It has some serious drawbacks. Those who practice it are in effect playing God, but without the omniscience. They can never know whether those whom they elevate are truly victims, or whether the individuals they exclude via informal quotas might be more deserving of preferences. Race is an imperfect predictor of victimhood. And a college degree is an imperfect remedy for historical discrimination. Schemes of racial preference in higher education do nothing to remedy the academic weaknesses of African Americans and Hispanics and may even exacerbate them. While the underperformance of minority students admitted to universities through various preference schemes has been exaggerated, the damage done to black self-respect has been considerable, and the misplaced outrage these schemes provoke tend to perpetuate rather than diminish racial stereotypes.

It is unlikely that university admissions officers in the short term will experience a change of heart about their policies, backed as they are by the cult of “diversity and inclusion”; they know that any heresies will be swiftly punished. But that is no reason why the rest of American society has to accept this perverse brand of egalitarianism. Americans have historically preferred another kind of equality, equality of opportunity, which is more compatible with our traditions of liberty and self-reliance. African-Americans in particular have surely been the victims of racism (systematic racism is another matter), but that is not the reason for their underperformance on tests. The reason is that, on average, they are poorer and more urban than other Americans. They disproportionately live in inner cities with bad schools. It is K-12 education, not higher education, which is doing the most damage to minority achievement. And it is K-12 education, I believe, that offers us as a society the greatest opportunity to do something useful about the problem of racial inequality.

If we really wanted to put our resources where they could do the most good for those at the bottom of our society, we might think of reallocating some of the $120 billion the federal government spends annually on grants, work-study programs and loans for post-secondary education. Instead of spending the funds on middle-class entitlements, much of which goes to wealthy private colleges, we might think of converting those funds to vouchers that would give the parents of poor and disadvantaged students the resources to choose better schools. Instead of loading middle class students with mountains of debt, we might consider providing a solid benefit to those who need it most.

Spending federal dollars on higher education is feel-good legislation and a proven vote-getter, but the evidence suggests that its effect is largely to inflate tuition, especially at for-profit schools, and increase administrative bloat. The funds would be much better spent on the part of our society that has the most potential for improvement and for contributing to the general welfare. Given the misallocation of educational resources caused by lavish federal spending in higher education, shifting funds to basic education makes a great deal of economic sense. Educating a young black man so that he can profit from college is a much wiser use of public funds than educating future baristas in subjects of little value to society. Like young women two generations ago, young black and Hispanic men today are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the country. Educating them well at the earliest stages of their development will make us all better off.

Democracy often has difficulty in finding the right balance between meritocracy and equality. But strengthening equality of opportunity in our society for the least advantaged is less a tradeoff than a win-win choice. Giving low-income parents the means to improve the quality of their children’s basic education will give America both more equality and more merit.