The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America

Despite the frequently repeated claim that higher education in the United States is a meritocractic system, college is not the great equalizer it's touted to be. Indeed, long-standing inequities in the United States are often reflected in and perpetuated by our institutions of higher education. Drawing on insights from sociology, education, economics, and history, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America explores the roots of these practices and policies and shows how they continue to play out today.

The book's three authors have all spent decades researching and writing about education policy. Anthony Carnevale is the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, a nonprofit research and policy institute focused on the relationship between education, career qualifications, and current workforce demands. Jeff Strohl is the center's director of research and spends much of his time examining how education impacts career opportunities. And Peter Schmidt, an award-winning journalist and author of Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action, serves as a deputy editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education and previously covered education policy and access at Education Week.

To understand higher education in the United States, they write, we must first look at the factors that contribute to the success of certain individuals and groups as they navigate the education system and then enter the workforce — as well as the lack of success experienced by others. When we do, it becomes obvious that characterizations of higher education in the U.S. as a meritocracy makes it easy for too many to blame individuals for their lack of success while ignoring the fact that the system as designed creates inequality at every level.

In support of that argument, the authors spend the first few chapters offering an analysis of the interlocking mechanisms — social, political, cultural, economic — that perpetuate disparities in access to higher education. Along the way, they pose several key questions: What is the role of higher education in American life? How do, and should, we define success? And who is deserving of the limited resources available to the system? Such questions are meant, among other things, to prod the reader to think about familiar admissions practices — a reliance on standardized tests, in-person interviews, an emphasis on extracurricular activities — that historically were rooted in an unabashed elitism and have been shown to have little value in predicting student success.

The authors further note that the increase in higher education enrollment has been driven to a large degree by the growth of public universities, which today enroll roughly three-quarters of college students in the U.S. White students from wealthy backgrounds, on the other hand, are the majority at many of the most selective colleges and universities in the country, and those colleges and universities receive a far greater share of the private dollars and resources dedicated to higher education, enabling them to invest far more than less-well-resourced schools in the success of the students they enroll — and reinforce the all-too-familiar "separate and unequal" dynamic that has characterized American education over the last hundred and fifty years.

Because the most selective private colleges and universities typically have the largest endowments, they also are able to compete vigorously for applicants with the best grades or test scores and most interesting extracurricular accomplishments, leading to a largely class-based stratification of schools into tiers — most selective, selective, and so on — that has become more pronounced in recent decades and increasingly difficult to overcome. For Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl, the solution to the problem is obvious: if we want to raise graduation and retention rates and start to narrow inequality in America, we need to devote more of our limited resources to middle-tier schools.

Unfortunately, the immense pressures from competing interests that higher education must deal with makes that unlikely to happen any time soon. Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl argue compellingly that all these factors— from inequitable admission practices, to universities operating like for-profit businesses and/or subsidizing education for the wealthy, to first-generation and underresourced students being deterred by the increasingly complicated admissions process — have created a system that is anything but a meritocracy and is teetering on the verge of collapse.

But there's hope. The last chapter of The Merit Myth offers a number of proposals for how the system can be improved and made more equitable. They include calls for building a leadership pipeline in higher education that more closely reflects the diversity of the U.S. population, ending reliance on standardized tests scores and legacy admissions, redirecting resources to schools where those resources would have the greatest impact, and making fourteen years of education the new "normal." While many of these reforms require changes at the university and legislative levels, they also require that we think carefully and redefine our collective goals for higher education in America.

In providing a historical context for current debates about higher education and in considering all the many factors involved in making education policy, the authors provide a well-rounded picture of our current system. If the prose gets a bit dense at times, it is merely testament to just how complicated the challenge and potential solutions are. Ultimately, Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl have provided a great service by reframing how we should think about the challenge and giving readers hope that real change is possible.

Amelia Becker, an intern with the Communications department at Candid, currently is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and economics.