College 2005 November 2005

Does Meritocracy Work?

Not if society and colleges keep failing to distinguish between wealth and merit

For a parent drowning in glossy college mailings, a college admissions officer deluged with applications, or a student padding a résumé with extracurricular activities, it's easy to see applying to college as a universal American rite of passage—a brutal and ecumenical process that ushers each generation of stressed-out applicants into the anteroom of adulthood. But for many American teenagers the admissions process is something else entirely—a game that is dramatically rigged against them, if they even play it. In a country where a college degree is a prerequisite for economic and social advancement, rich and upper-middle-class students can feel secure about their chances. They may not have the grades or the good fortune to attend their first-choice schools, but they're still likely to be admitted to a college that matches their interests and ambitions reasonably well. For those further down the socioeconomic ladder, though, getting in is hard, and getting through can be even harder.

Native intelligence and academic achievement do lift many poor students into college. But especially where elite colleges are concerned, students from well-off families have a big advantage. The figures are stark. If you hope to obtain a bachelor's degree by age twenty-four, your chances are roughly one in two if you come from a family with an annual income over $90,000; roughly one in four if your family's income falls between $61,000 and $90,000; and slightly better than one in ten if it is between $35,000 and $61,000. For high schoolers whose families make less than $35,000 a year the chances are around one in seventeen.

This is not how the modern meritocracy was supposed to work. American higher education was overhauled in the middle years of the twentieth century to be a force for near universal opportunity—or so the overhaulers intended. The widespread use of the SAT would identify working-class kids with high "scholastic aptitude," as the initialism then had it (since 1994 the SAT has been for "scholastic assessment"), and give them the academic chances they deserved. Need-based financial aid and government grants would ensure that everyone who wanted a college education could afford one. Affirmative action would diversify campuses and buoy disadvantaged minorities.

Part of this vision has come to pass. Minority participation in higher education has risen since the 1960s, and college campuses are far more racially and ethnically diverse today than they were half a century ago. But the socioeconomic diversity that administrators assumed would follow has failed to materialize. It's true that more low-income students enroll in college now than in the 1970s—but they are less likely to graduate than their wealthier peers. Through boom and recession, war and peace, the proportion of the poorest Americans obtaining college degrees by age twenty-four has remained around six percent.

This is not something that most colleges like to discuss—particularly elite schools, which have long taken pride in their supposed diversity. But the idea that the meritocracy isn't working is gaining currency among observers of higher education. It's visible in recent high-profile changes in the financial-aid policies of such schools as Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia; as a thread of disquiet running through the interviews this magazine has conducted with admissions officers over the past two years; and as the unpleasant but undeniable conclusion of a number of new studies.

The most prominent of these studies was headed by William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, who since leaving that office, in 1988, has produced a series of weighty analyses of college admissions—on the consequences of racial preferences, the role of athletics, and, most recently, the question of socioeconomic diversity. In the recently published book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, Bowen and his co-authors use detailed data from the 1995 entering class at nineteen selective schools—five Ivies, ten small liberal arts colleges, and four flagship state universities—to argue that elite universities today are as much "bastions of privilege" as they are "engines of opportunity." Only six percent of the students at these schools are first-generation collegians; only 11 percent of the graduates come from families in the country's bottom economic quartile. The picture is even worse in another recent study. The education expert Anthony Carnevale and the economist Stephen Rose surveyed 146 top colleges and found that only three percent of their students came from the bottom economic quartile of the U.S. population—whereas 74 percent came from the top one.

At the very least, the persistence of this higher-education gap suggests that the causes of the decades-old growth in economic inequality are deeper than, say, tax cuts or the ebb and flow of the stock market. Inequality of income breeds inequality of education, and the reverse is also true: as long as the financial returns on a college degree continue to rise, the upper and upper-middle classes are likely to pull further away from the working and lower classes.

The United States still leads most countries by a considerable margin in proportion of the population with a college degree (27 percent). But when the sample is narrowed to those between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, we slip into the pack of industrialized nations, behind Canada, Japan, and five others. Further, the U.S. college-age population is swelling (it will increase by about 3.9 million during this decade, according to one estimate), with much of the growth occurring among low-income Hispanics, one of the groups least likely to attend college. Educating this population is an enormous challenge—one that we are unprepared to meet.

The obvious culprits are the universities, which have trumpeted their commitment to diversity and equal access while pursuing policies that favor better-off students. Not only is admitting too many low-income students expensive, but it can be bad for a school's rankings and prestige—and in the long run prestige builds endowments.

The current arms race for higher rankings began in earnest in the early 1980s, when the post—Baby Boom dearth of applicants sent colleges, both public and private, scrambling to keep tuition revenue coming in. It has been sustained by anxious Boomer parents, by the increasing financial advantages of a college degree, by cutbacks in government aid, and by magazines eager to make money from ranking America's top schools. The rankings rely on statistics such as average SAT scores, alumni giving, financial resources, and graduation rates. Attracting students with high scores and high family incomes offers the biggest gains of all. (See Matthew Quirk's "The Best Class Money Can Buy," page 128.)

Meanwhile, the admissions process is strewn with practical obstacles for low-income students. Early-admissions programs, for instance, which James Fallows has discussed in these pages (see "The Early-Decision Racket," September 2001 Atlantic), offer many benefits to applicants, but they almost exclusively help wealthy students, whose parents and guidance counselors are more likely to have the resources to take advantage of them. Poorer students are also less likely to know about the availability of financial aid, and thus more likely to let "sticker shock" keep them from applying in the first place. And a poor student put on a waiting list at a selective school is less likely than a well-to-do student to be accepted, because often a school has exhausted its financial-aid budget before it turns to the list.

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Ross Douthat is a reporter-researcher for The Atlantic and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

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