College 2005 November 2005

Does Meritocracy Work?

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

It doesn't really matter, though, whether our meritocracy passes on success genetically, given how completely it is passed on through wealth and culture. The higher one goes up the income ladder, the greater the emphasis on education and the pressure from parents and peers to excel at extracurricular achievement—and the greater the likelihood of success. (Even the admissions advantage that many schools give to recruited athletes—often presumed to help low-income students—actually tends to disproportionately benefit the children of upper-income families, perhaps because they are sent to high schools that encourage students to participate in a variety of sports.) In this inherited meritocracy the high-achieving kid will not only attend school with other high achievers but will also marry a high achiever and settle in a high-achieving area—the better to ensure that his children will have all the cultural advantages he enjoyed growing up.

Powerful though these cultural factors are, change is possible. The same studies that reveal just how class-defined American higher education remains also offer comfort for would-be reformers. Certainly, policies that strengthen families or improve elementary education undercut social stratification more effectively than anything colleges do. For now, however, numerous reasonably prepared students—300,000 a year, by one estimate—who aren't going to college could be. And many students who are less likely than their higher-income peers to attend the most selective schools would thrive if admitted.

The obvious way to reach these students is to institute some sort of class-based affirmative action—a "thumb on the scale" for low-income students that is championed by Bowen and by Carnevale and Rose in their analyses of educational inequality. Many elite universities claim to pursue such policies already, but Bowen's study finds no admissions advantage for poor applicants to the selective schools in the sample simply for being poor. In contrast, a recruited athlete is 30 percent more likely to be admitted than an otherwise identical applicant; a member of an under-represented minority is 28 percent more likely; and a "legacy" (alumni child) or a student who applies early is 20 percent more likely.

As an alternative Bowen and his co-authors propose that selective schools begin offering a 20 percent advantage to low-income students—a policy with "a nice kind of symbolic symmetry" to the advantage for legacies, they point out. By their calculations, this would raise the proportion of low-income students at the nineteen elite schools in their sample from 11 to 17 percent, without much impact on the schools' academic profiles.

Class-based affirmative action has an obvious political advantage: it's more popular with the public than race-based affirmative action. (Bowen envisions socioeconomic diversity as a supplement to racial diversity, not a replacement.) Increasing socioeconomic diversity might offer something to both sides of the red-blue divide—to a Democratic Party rhetorically committed to equalizing opportunity, and to a Republican Party that increasingly represents the white working class, one of the groups most likely to benefit from having the scales weighted at elite universities.

But however happy this may sound in theory, one wonders how likely schools are to adopt class-based preferences. As Carnevale and Rose put it, doing so "would alienate politically powerful groups and help less powerful constituencies"; Bowen notes that it would reduce income from tuition and alumni giving. A selective school might court backlash every time it admitted a poor kid with, say, a middle-range SAT over an upper-middle-class kid with a perfect score. It's doubtful that many colleges would be willing to accept the losses—and, for the more selective among them, the possible drop in U.S. News rankings.

Even the elite of the elite—schools like the nineteen examined in Bowen's book, which are best able to afford the costs associated with class-based affirmative action—seem more inclined to increase financial aid than to revamp their admissions policies with an eye toward economic diversity. In the past several years schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Brown have shifted financial-aid dollars from loans to grants, helping to ensure a free ride for the neediest students once they get in. Such gestures make for good public relations, and they do help a few students—but they don't make it easier for low-income students to gain admission.

The benefits and the limitations of moving from loans to grants can be observed in the "AccessUVa" program at the University of Virginia, one of the schools in Bowen's sample. In 2003 it had a typical entering class for an elite school—58 percent of the students came from families with annual incomes above $100,000—and in 2004 fewer than six percent of students came from families with incomes below $40,000. In 2004 Virginia announced that for students with family incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line it would eliminate need-based loans and would instead offer grants exclusively (the school has since raised the threshold to include families of four making less than 200 percent of the poverty line, or about $40,000). It would also cap the amount of debt any student could accrue, funding the rest of his or her tuition through grants. The school publicized its increased affordability, with large-scale outreach to poorer parts of the state. It's too early to judge the program's success, but the first year's results are instructive: the number of low-income freshmen increased by nearly half, or sixty-six out of a class of about 3,100. This is a praiseworthy if small step: those sixty-six brought the low-income total to 199, or about six percent of the class. But it does not solve the problem of unequal access to higher education.

Significant improvements in access, if and when they come, will probably have little to do with the policies at the most elite schools. In America access ultimately rests on what happens in the vast middle rank of colleges and universities, where most undergraduates are educated—in particular, in state schools.

One thing that's unlikely to happen is a sudden increase in funding for higher education, along the lines of the post—World War II surge that made college possible for so many young people. The budgetary demands of swelling entitlements and military spending, the wariness of voters who perceive schools (sometimes rightly, usually wrongly) to be growing fat off their high tuition, and the cultural chasm between a Republican-controlled government and a lefter-than-thou academy—all this and more ensures that spending on higher education will not leap to the top of the nation's political agenda. Instead, schools and legislators must be willing to experiment.

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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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