You say you want a meritocracy …

The Cocoon Chronicles, Part XVIII: David Leonhardt on the effort by colleges to admit more low-income students:

But all else equal, a low-income applicant was no more likely to get in than a high-income applicant with the same SAT score. It’s pretty hard to call that meritocracy.

1) Really? I still owe Leonhardt a correction from, like, 2002, so I can’t be too snarky, but is it hard  to call a system that treats applicants equally according to a clear measurement a meritocracy? You’d think that would be the easiest system to call meritocratic–a default  or starting point, at least. Leonhardt has a plausible argument for altering that default arrangement by treating SATs as one factor among many. After all, they are a highly imperfect measure, they’re affected by preparation and environment–which means lower income kids with equivalent scores probably, on balance, have something that higher income kids with the same scores lack.  I buy that argument, I think.  But it’s not the easy argument. It’s the hard argument.** Leonhardt’s sentence is something you’d only write if you’d forgotten how to actually convince people who didn’t already agree with you, or given up.
2)  To extent there are a) genetically inherited characteristics that allow academic–or other– achievement, or b) lasting non-genetic cognitive advantages high income parents can give to their children (by playing Mozart in their cribs, or whatever) then c) Leonhardt’s Amherst-style meritocracy, to the extent it really is a meritocracy, isn’t undermining a cognitive elite, it’s creating one by sucking up talented individuals from the bottom and cementing them into the top quintile. Just saying. That doesn’t make Amherst’s approach wrong. But perfect meritocracy, even non-SAT meritocracy, is a double-edged ideal. 
3) It would be ironic if Amherst-style reforms finally gave lower income Americans greater access to college just when elites were concluding that college isn’t worth it.  But when you think about it, a non-college world in which high school graduates acquired the skills they wanted on the web or in ad hoc classes and proved their worth by performing well in actual jobs might be a preferable form of meritocracy. a) There would be no “signaling” of status for life, the way an Ivy League degree now signals status for life. The elite wouldn’t necessarily be getting Ivy League degrees; b) post-high school life would become a mad scramble for skills in which luck would inevitably play a greater role. That’s a good thing if it prevents people from concluding that richer = better. More than ever, richer might just = luckier; c)  A skill-by-skill scramble would value a multiplicity of discrete talents–are you a good computer programmer? a painter? a musician? writer?–instead of one general talent (“smarts”). You wouldn’t need to be well-rounded to join the elite. You’d just have to be good at something. It’s harder to insinuate that a programmer is better than a musician or writer the way it’s currently possible to  insinuate that a high-SAT Yale grad is better than someone whose scores could only get him into a state school. …

Update: Reihan Salam winds up in a similar place, after noting that the signaling-for-life ability of elite colleges is also one reason why higher education is so expensive (i.e. demand for the lifetime credential is high, people are willing to pay through the nose for it, and the supply of elite colleges is limited). …


** — Greg Mankiw suggests that in fact, given two applicants with identical SATs, the higher income student might perform better, as measured by college grades (GPA).  At least one study he cites seems to confirm this, perhaps because high income students have had opportunities the SATs don’t completely capture–like the chance to take calculus courses. I suspect Leonhardt would counter that GPA doesn’t measure the “merit” admissions committees are trying to predict. But what would the proper yardstick be? Ability to hold your own against other students in a way that produces mutual learning? Success later in life, when the effect of early calculus courses is highly diluted? Business success as well as academic success? GPA might not fully capture these qualities, especially if it is heavily influenced by short-term “income class” advantages. [Link via comments, below]

  • DWAnderson

    Point 3 is excellent.

    Re point 1, Greg Mankiw discusses the pretty compelling evidence Leonhadrt is wrong here: http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2011/05/regression-i-would-like-to-see.html

  • tom3

    1. Leonhardt’s introduction says all this matters because our Presidents and Supreme Court justices and top CEOS are all from the Ivies (and Michigan)(and Georgia Tech?). I don’t understand the link. I went to some of these schools and never met anyone who is famous today. Would I really have known George Bush at Yale, or Larry Page at Michigan, and become successful because of that?

    2. Greg Mankiw guesses that Leonhardt is wrong to support the ‘Marxist’ (idea that the same SATs for a rich kid and poor kid mean the poor kid will do better in college, and an economist gives him some backup. If that were true, you can bet that a million liberal think tanks would have publicized it over the past decades.

    3. There is a strange bait-and-switch in the column. Leonhardt never uses the words race, black or white. And the word minority shows up only once, when Leonhardt admits that minorities get a huge boost from admission policies. Leonhardt is actually (at least sometimes) talking about poor kids versus rich kids, within their own races.

    Look at his “All else equal,” qualifier at the beginning of the passage you quote. It refers to the previous sentence about minorities, right? So he’s saying that poor white kids don’t get in enough compared to rich white kids. And he may be saying that poor black kids don’t get in enough compared to rich black kids. But he never comes out and says that. And it’s not at all clear that Marx is really talking about that. There are a lot of black kids from successful families at top schools–is there anyone at those schools that wants to cut down on the number of them in order to increase the number of poorer black kids?

    4. Leonhardt cites the 2004 Equity and Excellence in American Education as the source for his claim that if you control for everything else (race, gender, athletics, alumni?), a poor kid with the same SATs as a rich kid is no more likely to get into a top school. I’m not going to buy the book and see if that’s really what it says. Even if it says that, I have a hard time believing it’s true. (The summary of the book shows that it is very focused on the disadvantages of historically oppressed groups, and I doubt that it is as concerned with poor whites, who I expect would be by far the largest beneficia of any race-neutral economically-based admissions policies.)

  • MV2012

    I was enjoying the Leonhardt piece until the same sentence Mickey highlights. Here’s the problem with the whole SAT angst: Kids aren’t failing to win admittance to Ivies, Stanford, MIT etc. because of their SATs. Read places such as College Confidential where the admits and rejects and waitlists post their scores, GPA, strengths (under represented minority, won a Siemens) etc. The reject list is chock-a-block with kids with perfect SATs, 5’s on AP tests, valedictorians, salutatorians. In short, tons of worthy kids get rejected in part because the Harvards of the world market to them to apply so that a) they reach more low-income kids and b) drive up their selectivity numbers by rejecting more kids. The strength of the Leonhardt piece is in addressing the lack of income diversity. A diamond in the rough has a chance of knocking the SAT out of the park, but does he have a chance at doing 800 hours of community service, while soloing with a prestige orchestra, while serving as captain of the lacrosse team and raising money for school construction in Ghana? Maybe but I would wager that there are a lot more low income and lower middle class kids who can nail the SAT than have the opportunities, dollars and parents with time to have them secure all those things beyond GPA and test scores that the highly selective say make the “right fit” for their institution. The great stat I have yet to see out of the colleges isn’t their student body breakdown by race and Hispanic/non-Hispanic but their breakdown by family income.