College 2005 November 2005

Does Meritocracy Work?

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

The good news is that there's no shortage of ideas. Bowen, for instance, points out that state schools might consider rethinking their relatively low tuition, which amounts to a subsidy for wealthy in-state parents. (Indeed, upper-income parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to state schools, presumably with just this advantage in mind.) These schools could keep their official tuition low while charging premiums for better-off applicants. Or they could follow the lead of Miami University, in Ohio, which recently raised in-state tuition to the same level as out-of-state tuition (from $9,150 to $19,730).

What should be done with the extra money? State governments might consider tying funding for schools more tightly to access—either directly, by rewarding those colleges that graduate larger numbers of low-income students, or indirectly, as Bowen and his co-authors suggest, by shifting funding from flagship universities to regional schools, which are more likely to enroll disadvantaged students.

More radically, states might ask how well they are serving their populations by funding public universities directly and allowing the universities to disburse the funds as they see fit. If the point of a public university is to hire superstar faculty members, build world-class research facilities, and compete with Harvard and Yale, then perhaps this way of funding makes sense. (It's worth noting that since the 1970s public schools have spent an increasing share of their funds on research and administration rather than on instruction.) But if the point is to make higher education more accessible, it doesn't.

The Ohio University economist Richard Vedder has suggested that states might consider offering less money to schools and more money to students, in the form of tuition vouchers redeemable at any public institution in their home state. These could be distributed according to financial need: if the average tuition in a state university system were $15,000, a poor student might receive a voucher for $15,000 and a wealthy student one for $3,000. Schools would have less of a financial incentive to admit mostly rich students. Vouchers might also simplify filing for financial aid; the economist Thomas Kane has argued that the sheer complexity of this process deters many low-income students.

Like class-based affirmative action, a voucher program might be able to command support from both sides of the political aisle. The system's market-based efficiency would delight free marketeers (Vedder is affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute), and its potential for increasing access might win the support of egalitarian liberals. And a voucher approach to funding state schools would mean less direct state involvement in higher education, which would please academics and administrators tired of having cost-conscious legislators looking over their shoulders.

Governments and public universities may also have lessons to learn from for-profit schools, which increasingly attract the students shut out of American higher education. Driven by bottom-line concerns, some of these schools enroll students who can't do the work, or promise job opportunities that never materialize. But many are oriented toward the needs of low-income populations. In New York State, for instance, some commercial schools set tuition at around $9,000—exactly the amount that a needy student can expect to receive from a Pell Grant combined with the state's tuition-assistance program. And they tend to serve the kind of students that traditional universities are failing—working adults, for instance, looking for the economic advantages that come with a college degree.

What gives the for-profit schools a leg up is their ability to "unbundle" a college education from its traditional (and costly) campus environment—something made possible in large part by the spread of the Internet. Some for-profit schools are entirely Web-based. Many others have put their reading lists, class registration, and even advising online. This is obviously not a model that a flagship state university is likely to emulate. But it may no longer make sense to spend a vast amount to sustain a traditional campus experience for the few when the same amount can provide an education for the many.

All these experiments—and that's what they are—have drawbacks. Public universities that spend more to improve access and graduation rates could make up for the expense by cutting, say, faculty salaries. Public schools already have a hard time keeping sought-after teachers from jumping to private colleges; if more money were spent enrolling and graduating poorer students, the problem would only worsen.

And the more that market efficiency was brought to bear on higher education, and the more that degree-granting and graduation rates were emphasized over the traditional academic experience, the more the liberal arts would be likely to suffer. Computer classes would crowd out Shakespeare, management courses would replace musical instruction, everyone would learn Spanish and no one Greek. Who would speak up to save liberal education?

The most obvious drawback is that a more egalitarian system, in which a college degree is nearly universal and therefore a less exclusive pathway to later success, would run counter to the interests of upper-middle-class parents—the people who wield the most influence in the politics of higher education. It's elite Americans who would lose out in class-based affirmative action. It's elite Americans who would pay more if state schools raised their tuition and state governments handed out income-adjusted vouchers. And it's elite Americans who would lose some of their standing if educational opportunity were more widely distributed. Why should they give it up? It's not as if our child doesn't deserve his advantages, parents might say, after helping that child rack up not only high grades and SAT scores but also a sterling record of community service.

What, really, does an eighteen-year-old high achiever "deserve"? A good college education, certainly—but surely not the kind of advantage that college graduates now enjoy. As Nicholas Lemann put it in The Big Test, his history of the American meritocracy, "Let us say you wanted to design a system that would distribute opportunity in the most unfair possible way. A first choice would be one in which all roles were inherited … A second unfair system might be one that allowed for competition but insisted that it take place as early in life as possible and with school as the arena." Students should be rewarded for academic achievement. But twelve years of parentally subsidized achievement should not hand them an advantage for the next fifty years of their lives.

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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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