The myth of merit based education

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In today’s society, if you want to compete and win in the global economy you need to go to college, as Harvard University political philosophy professor Michael Sandel puts it,  “what you earn will depend on what you learn.” But is the mantra “education, education, educationmisplaced? Does a college degree further divide Americans into winners and losers? 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Anthony Carvevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author ofThe Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America,” about why getting into a 4 year college program continues to be less about merit and more about wealth.  

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: How and why did a college degree become so important and why do American colleges still favor those who are wealthy? 

Anthony Carnevale: “Colleges and universities really didn't matter much until after about 1985, in economic terms. In the 1970s, 65 to 70% of the jobs were had with a high school degree or less but then beginning in 1983, after the ‘80, ‘81 recession, we saw a profound shift in the economy, such that now, only about 20% of good jobs, jobs ever will get you maybe $55 K in your early 30s, went to high school graduates and virtually all of those go to males. So for a good 80% of American young people if you don't get some college or post-secondary education or training after high school, you're not going anywhere in the economy. Because of that the American education system, especially higher education, has become the principal device, that now ensures the intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege, and that's a huge problem. 

It is an institutional problem and one that's very difficult to overcome, in part because Americans believe in education. We're sort of educational fundamentalists here,  every time there's a problem in America our answer is always education, education, education. But in this case, just to give you one statistic, since 1983, when the earnings inequality began to spike in America, 70% of the growth in that inequality is directly due to access to college and college graduation.”

Is there more myth than truth about achieving full diversity on college campuses? 

Carnevale: “The driving force in American higher education, unless you’re Harvard and you got so much money you don't know what to do with it..but even at Harvard, they know what to do with it, they get [it], they do whatever they can to increase their number one standing in the college rankings and they don't try to help people who need it. 

We've got a higher education system that works like a hospital for healthy people. The truth is that diversity in American higher education is declining, not growing. Racial diversity is about where it's been for quite some time. But even more disturbing is the fact that economic diversity is going nowhere. In 1993, if you looked at the top 500 colleges in America, about 5% of the kids there came from the bottom 25% of the family income distribution. Today that number has increased to seven, and that's it. You do things like dump the SAT, like California did - and I used to be the vice president of the ETS so I know about the SAT, it really doesn’t change much, it's a feel good kind of thing. But what really drives colleges is the business model and so when you dump the SAT, it just allows you to let in more rich kids.

If you're the president of an American college, especially one that’s selective, the business strategy is very clear, that is you get as many full paying students as you can. Oftentimes you use early admission to do that. And then with about 50% to 70% of the remaining class, you do the bargaining with upper middle class family families. That is you distribute so called merit aid, which has nothing to do with merit. When the parents and the kids come to the campus, they end up in the admissions office, and they try to cut a deal. You then try to give merit aid or discounts to about 60% of the people and then you've got a few percent left over that you can actually in terms of money, in order to meet your budget requirement give to disadvantaged kids or good quarterbacks and the disadvantaged kids come in last. The truth is American higher education cannot afford to be equitable, because of its business model.”

Is it still worthwhile to get a college degree?

Carnevale: “College education, and uniquely American college education, does in fact produce human flourishing. When I hear high minded things like that I am a person who works with numbers so I check the numbers. I always expect the numbers are going to disappoint my illusions. But in this case, it turns out the illusions, the romantic vision of college is true. It does, in fact, promote human flourishing in a number of respects. 

We know now for example, that the American bachelor's degree which is unique in the world, in that it combines specific education, which has economic value with a general education — all those courses in english, french and history you have to take in order to graduate. A college degree does produce first higher earnings over a lifetime and secondly, it creates tolerance. In study we just finished with other scholars in the European Union, we find that the American college degree is the strongest antidote we have in our society, to authoritarianism — which is why Republicans are right when they say if you send American kids to four year colleges, you're producing Democrats.”




Andrea Brody