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]