'The Tyranny of the Meritocracy'

Lani Guinier discusses her new critique of college admissions.

February 3, 2015

Elite colleges admit students in a way that will fail to diversify higher education -- and the current use of affirmative action has little impact, according to a new book by Lani Guinier. Her new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, has just been published by Beacon Press. In it she argues that current admissions systems are based on tests, rankings and prestige -- in ways that undermine American democracy. And she argues for replacing what she calls "testocratic merit" with a new "democratic merit." This shift would place more emphasis on the good to society of educating a diverse group of people than on identifying the people with the best credentials (as currently defined by society) for admission. Guinier, a professor of law at Harvard University, responded via e-mail to questions about her new book.

Q: What is the difference between democratic merit and testocratic merit and why does this difference matter?

A: Democratic merit is the form of merit that views higher education, at least partially, as a public good. As such, admissions criteria to colleges and universities should continuously be reassessed for the degree to which they help the institution and its constituents to make present and future contributions to society, that is, our democracy. Democratic merit does what our current meritocracy fails to do: it creates a system that incentivizes individuals who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy for both their own good as well as for the collective good. Granting these individuals educational access, regardless of their supposed possession of abstractly measured and individualized “talent,” is what will contribute to the creation of higher-level problem solving.

Testocratic merit makes the assumption that test scores are the best evidence of applicants’ worth, without paying much attention to the environments in which one finds those individuals. It thereby ignores several built-in biases that privilege those who are already quite advantaged. And it ignores those who could make a valuable contribution to the institution but who have not been the beneficiaries of the privileges of those who may test higher -- including growing up in thriving neighborhoods and homes, attending well-equipped and funded schools, having tutoring and other extra help.

If our society truly values education as a means of preparing citizens to participate in the decisions that affect their lives as individuals and the society they create as a collective, as well as to enable individuals to improve their lots and their society, then we need to reexamine exactly how we define merit.

We can alter how we think about merit, from something a child is born with to something that she (and/or we) can help cultivate. We can shift from prioritizing individualized testing to group collaboration among all stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy, as the entire undergirding of our educational system rests upon notions of individual achievement and the promotion of competition. But somehow we must shift from promoting testocratic merit, which has produced dubious results, to developing democratic merit, because the latter is the foundation upon which our national values truly ought to rest.

Q: Defenders of standardized testing say that the differential scores by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status reflect inequalities in American society, not problems with the tests. How would you respond? 

A: Well, yes, that’s undoubtedly true. And if it is, then that is a problem with the test, because it is not lifting up students with potential, but simply showing us who has been the beneficiary of relative wealth. And if we want to thrive in a multicultural society, we need to address that problem in two aspects: we need to close the wealth gap and work to achieve more economic justice in this county, and we have to be sure that our access to higher education isn’t perpetuating the economic inequality by keeping out students who have grown up in underserved communities and attended underfunded schools.

Q: Many proponents of affirmative action view it as an alternative or supplement to test-based admissions, yet you are critical not only of testing, but of current models of affirmative action as used by elite colleges and universities. What's wrong with current approaches to affirmative action?

A: The loud debate over affirmative action is a distraction that obscures the real problem, because right now affirmative action simply mirrors the values of the current view of meritocracy. Students at elite colleges, for example, who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action tend to be either the children of immigrants or the children of upper-middle-class parents of color who have been sent to fine prep schools just like the upper-middle-class white students. The result? Our nation’s colleges, universities and graduate schools use affirmative-action-based practices to admit students who test well, and then they pride themselves on their cosmetic diversity. Thus, affirmative action has evolved in many (but not all) colleges to merely mimic elite-sponsored admissions practices that transform wealth into merit, encourage overreliance on pseudoscientific measures of excellence and convert admission into an entitlement without social obligation

Indeed, where affirmative action has failed, it has failed because it has not gone far enough to address the unfairness of both our current merit system and its wealth-driven definition of merit. However, when we redefine merit by those characteristics that indicate a student’s potential for future success in our democracy -- leadership, the ability to collaborate with others, resiliency and a drive to learn, among others -- then we might be able to make use of actions that prioritize such traits. If we commit to mentoring and nurturing that potential in our students, universities might more successfully cultivate potential leaders.

Q: You write with enthusiasm about the Posse program, in which small cohorts of low-income and minority students from various cities are admitted together to colleges. But at most campuses in Posse, those admitted this way represent only a very small minority of students. How big could this model get?

A: Students of color often struggle at the higher echelons of education; they may have trouble advocating for themselves or finding necessary resources, they may have never learned the principles of time management, or they may suffer from insecurity as to whether or not they “belong.” For certain students, such as children of parents who did not go to college or in some cases didn’t even go to high school, gaining admission to college is only the beginning of the battle; adjusting to college life proves in some cases to be even harder than getting in. This is where democratic merit can truly shine: when students work together to solve problems and make advances, rather than scratch their lonely way to the top, they can create a supportive learning environment, one I find wonderfully embodied by the Posse Foundation. I cannot say how big this model will ultimately get, but as I note in the book, there is a growing demand among majority-white colleges for ways to diversity their campuses without resorting to race-based affirmative action programs, which are increasingly maligned by the public and disfavored by the courts. 

Q: If you were named admissions dean at an Ivy university or an elite public flagship -- an institution with far more demand for admission than there is space -- how would you admit students?

A: There are several models I describe in the book, and I might try elements of each of them. Turning again to the Posse Foundation, I would borrow from one of its most innovative features, which is its selection process. With a $1.9 million grant received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1999, Posse has developed a college-admissions assessment tool known as the Bial-Dale Adaptability Index, cocreated by Posse Foundation founder Debbie Bial. BDI is designed to identify students with specific leadership traits, such as social interactions skills and the ability to work in groups, that predict their ability to succeed in college and become active members of their campuses. BDI evaluates students in groups of 10 or 12 at a time through exercises such as the Lego test, in which members study a robot built of Lego blocks and then try to reconstruct it based on sharing their collective memories. Observers watch students taking the Lego test -- as well as engaging in other dynamic interactions, such as running impromptu discussions on genetic testing or creating a public service announcement -- to see who takes initiative, who collaborates well and who is persistent.

By scoring and tracking hundreds of New York City high school seniors who have applied to college through the Posse program, the study found that BDI can in fact predict these attributes in students: persistence, ability to access resources and ability to contribute to a campus community (leadership). After controlling for SAT scores, the study found that students with a high BDI were more likely to graduate in four years than were low-BDI students, and that high-BDI students had considerably higher GPAs than low-BDI students (again controlling for SAT scores). In fact, students’ SAT scores had very little correlation with their BDI scores, and the former did not reflect the likelihood of success in school or graduation rates. Moreover, BDI students were shown to graduate at rates similar to those of the overall student body, despite having much lower SAT scores. BDI was found to be a particularly strong outcome predictor for black students, in contrast to standardized tests, which are even weaker predictors of black students’ success than white students’. I think that would make a good start.


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