Meritocracy Blues

Are elite colleges rewarding talent or ambition?

By Nathan Pippenger

The latest issue of The New Republic contains a provocative essay by William Deresiewicz attacking the Ivy League. Yishai Schwartz is affronted:

But let’s also acknowledge for a moment that college admissions can be an important motivator for many high school students, especially strivers, and that prestige can impact the choices of Ivy Leaguers. Most of the time, this is a positive. For many, the opportunity to attend an elite college is an incentive for taking challenging classes, for completing assignments, for studying for exams, for taking added levels of responsibility on school newspapers and sports teams. […] What, exactly, is the matter with any of that? Isn’t the point of meritocracy that it rewards and incentivizes behavior that we find valuable?

Schwartz’s response plays on an ambiguity in Deresiewicz’s portrait of hyper-ambitious, intellectually bland student overachievers. To wit: When evaluating a resume full of straight A’s and impressive extracurriculars, it’s hard to distinguish between phenomenal young intellects and overworked, premature careerists. (The categories might not even be mutually exclusive.) Deresiewicz claims that the latter are prevalent in the Ivy Leagues. Schwartz sees the former as the norm. I don’t know how admissions committees can be expected to tell the difference. As things stand, we’re left with dueling anecdotes.

But another part of Deresiewicz’s argument can be quantified, and it’s noticeably absent in Schwartz’s rebuttal: the link between elite private education and class. The education-class link manifests itself, so to speak, at the beginning and end of the process: the students who are accepted into elite schools, and the sorts of graduates that emerge from them. Aside from a brief mention of class-based affirmative action at the end, Schwartz’s response is largely silent on class and inequality—which is too bad, because these issues provide a useful perspective on his insistence that elite schools are a successful meritocracy promoting values the rest of us would do well to recognize.

On the face of it, there are good reasons to be skeptical that elite schools are selecting high schoolers on the basis of genuine intellectual promise. As Deresiewicz points out, at top universities, the proportion of students from the top quarter of the income distribution has grown in recent decades. It dwarfs the proportion from the entire bottom half of the distribution, which remains tiny. Nor can the massive importance of SAT scores in college admissions be severed from the realities of class. It’s not just that research on standardized tests has consistently noted strong correlations between scores and family income. As The New York Times noted earlier this year, students from the top 20% of the income distribution who have SAT scores in the lowest range (a paltry 800-999) are more likely to finish a four-year degree by age 24 than bottom-quintile students with the highest SAT scores (1,200-1,600). Clearly, something is off here.

But even allowing that the admissions process is flawed, perhaps life at elite schools (once you’re in) really does promote talent, intellect, and service over narrow-minded ambition. (And Deresiewicz is too dismissive of the real intellectual virtues and incredible scholarly resources at elite colleges.) Still, the numbers reveal a problem. Wealth is not only rewarded in the admissions process; it evidently occupies a privileged place in the vaunted meritocratic culture of the schools—since, as Deresiewicz notes, roughly one-third of graduates from schools like Harvard and Princeton are going “into financing or consulting.” In the face of this data, Schwartz reassures readers that elite schools largely succeed in “promot[ing] and identify[ing] talents and values we hold dear,” and that they “have done an admirable job of creating a culture that promotes important intellectual and social virtues.”

Of course, there’s quite a bit of truth in that, and not every school has been overwhelmed by the same highly privatized ethos. (Nicholas Thompson memorably lamented last year that his alma mater, Stanford, “now looks like a giant tech incubator with a football team.”) Still, even if there are partial holdouts, paeans to the meritocracy are a limp response to charges that elite schools are “identifying” income as much as intelligence, and that they’re “promoting” a life on Wall Street as much as a life of the mind. Readers concerned by class makeup and job statistics are unlikely to be reassured by vaguely-defensive admonitions like these: “Ivy League schools tend to reward values and ideals that Americans would do well to rally behind: clear thinking and persuasive writing, diligence and responsibility, service and leadership.” Well, that settles it. Worry not about the perverse incentives towards empty careerism, or the armies of budding financiers. The old-fashioned values are still being rewarded, at least at some places. And the rest of you hoi polloi would do well to rally behind them.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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