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

Published in May 2020

Is higher education an engine of socioeconomic mobility or a system that acts to concentrate and justify privilege?

An honest answer to this question may be a simple yes.

Thinking clearly about higher education today may require us to simultaneously hold two uncomfortable and conflicting truths.

The first truth is that for almost every individual (say, your children), it is better to attend college than to stop at high school. Someone who holds a bachelor's degree will, on average, earn 66 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma over their working lifetime. This college premium is about a $1 million difference.

The second truth is that our higher education system, as designed and funded today, disproportionately benefits the most advantaged.

For some books, it is best to let the words of the authors speak for themselves. Accordingly, I've attempted to pull out some key quotes from The Merit Myth.

These quotes contain some of the underlying data that Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl use to make their arguments that higher education has evolved into an engine of stratification rather than mobility.

The book goes into some historical detail about how we got to this point and provides some recommendations to bring balance back. But for that history and those recommendations, you will need to read the book.

Open-access public colleges, which educate 55 percent of students who attend public institutions, receive less than half as much in state appropriations as more prestigious public colleges, which educate 21 percent of students at public institutions. These differences are magnified in spending gaps: selective public colleges spend almost three times as much on instructional and academic support per student as open-access public colleges. Selective colleges generally offer much bigger subsidies for each student's educational program. For example, in 2006, private research universities spent on each student $15,000 in non-tuition subsidies. Community colleges, by contrast, spent $6,500 in non-tuition subsidies per student. (p. 122)

As economist Gordon C. Winston has shown, students at the most selective schools are paying roughly 20 cents for every educational dollar spent on them. In contrast, students at the least prestigious schools are paying 80 cents on the dollar. (p. 122)

Since the 1990s, nearly two-thirds of selective public universities have reduced their share of students from families with incomes in the bottom 40 percent, according to a 2017 analysis by the New America think tank. (pp. 124-125)

Is there any way to justify the disproportionate share of public dollars that flow to high-status public institutions (flagship universities), at the expense of open-access four-year institutions and community colleges?

One argument may be that public spending on public postsecondary institutions is not a zero-sum game. That there is no defined pot of money for universities, but rather state-level higher education spending competes with other priorities such as health care, secondary education, highways, social services and prisons.

Leaders at public flagship institutions will undoubtedly point out how rapidly public funding has declined as a portion of all revenues. These dollars have had to be replaced by other sources of funding, such as tuition (much of it out-of-state and international) and grants.

I have a hard time faulting public flagship universities for the rest of the public postsecondary sector's economic struggles.

Readers of The Merit Myth might be tempted to conclude that good public policy would involve shifting resources from flagship public institutions to community colleges and other less selective public universities. This policy, I think, would be both unfair and counterproductive. We need to focus our energies on increasing public funding for all public institutions, and not squeezing the diminishing number of public dollars out of our best public schools.

60 percent of all seats in the most selective colleges go to students from the most affluent families. (p. 88)

At the "Ivy Plus" colleges -- the eight members of the Ivy League, plus Duke, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago -- the children of parents in the top one percent of the income distribution account for 14.5 percent of students, making them seventy-seven times more likely to be enrolled than the children of parents in the bottom fifth. The children of the most affluent one-tenth of one percent, with annual family incomes in excess of $2.2 million, are 117 times more likely than those in the bottom fifth to attend. (p. 129)

At more than half of all colleges and universities, more than 50 percent of all undergraduates receive Pell Grants. These colleges are primarily community colleges, for-profit colleges, and regional public universities. Meanwhile, at about one-third of the nation's five hundred most selective colleges, less than 20 percent of students receive Pell Grants. Some colleges have student bodies in which less than 7 percent of students are Pell Grant recipients. Allowing more Pell Grant recipients into selective colleges would make these colleges more diverse not only by class, but also by race. More than half of Pell Grant recipients are nonwhite. (p. 205)

How to respond to these quotes? In the acknowledgments of The Merit Myth, Carnevale and his co-authors write, "This book is an outgrowth of the research we are doing at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University." A bit later in that section, they write, "We want to first thank Georgetown University for supporting the Center" (p. 225). The questions I keep asking myself are about the role of universities as places of knowledge creation.

What would the impact on the production of scholarship be if elite institutions redirected funding away from a scholar-teacher model and toward recruitment and scholarships for low-income students?

The question -- and it is not a question that The Merit Myth answers satisfactorily -- is what would be the trade-offs if elite schools shifted their spending priorities in ways radical enough to achieve campus socioeconomic parity with society? Clearly, much would be gained. But what would be lost?

While I believe in the cause of increasing enrollments of low-income students at elite institutions, and of providing generous funding for these students, I am also cognizant of the reality that any income-based recruitment efforts at elite schools will make little difference in the overall postsecondary distribution. There are almost 20 million students enrolled across the country in colleges and universities, with only about 150,000 of those coming from the Ivy League.

Should elite schools recruit more low-income students and fund their education. Definitely. Is this already a priority of most (if not every) highly selective institution? I'd say yes. Are we doing enough? Probably not.

The real question is, are the nation's most selective colleges and universities acting in ways that drive higher levels of economic inequality and elite privilege?

The very least that those of us who work at highly selective colleges and universities can do is read The Merit Myth, and ask ourselves if the authors make their case.

In evaluating The Merit Myth, we would be wise to remember Upon Sinclair's warning that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Even those of us who have disagreements with The Merit Myth cannot deny the moral force in which the book's authors marshal their arguments.

The Merit Myth is a book that deserves to be carefully read and debated across higher education.

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