The Great American Meritocracy Machine

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Cheating is a thing.  It happens a lot. A few years ago, I was having a conversation with Gregoire, who ran the testing center at an institution I will call “Ravenwood College.”  Although Ravenwood accepted SAT and ACT scores, they also had their own in-house entrance exam which was administered on site.  Gregoire was meticulous in proctoring exams, checking paperwork and especially photo identification carefully. He recalled one time, when an applicant claimed to have left her ID in the Office of Admissions and said she would be right back. Later, the applicant returned with the ID and escorted by an admissions counselor, but it was an entirely different person.

She tried to persuade Gregoire that he was mistaken – that they had just spoken and she had come back as instructed.  But he responded, with a roll of the eyes and a dry comment: “Okay, who did you get to take your exam for you?”

Sound familiar?

The Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal has splatted hard in the middle of the media, and already faded from our attention.  Several days of non-stop coverage and opinion, followed by fatigue. Our attention is nothing if not fickle. It is outrageous that wealthy elites and influential celebrities and their consultants have falsified documents and bribed coaches so their kids can go to extremely selective universities.  And it makes sense that this would catch our collective attention.  The story fundamentally undermines our trust in American meritocracy.

Maybe it should. Maybe that’s a good thing. Because the most noteworthy thing about the scandal is not the cheating.  There are other important observations to be made. And there have been many who have made important observations about how affluent families already game the system in entirely legal ways.  But there is more still to consider here.

I’ve spent a lot of my professional life around colleges and universities and seen wonderful and transformative things happen there.  But we have to also recognize that a big part of what colleges do is sort students into piles based on merit.  “Going to college” is one sort of meritorious pile that employers pay a lot of attention to; and in some circles the most relevant pile is which college we went to.  And even affluent parents are under a tremendous amount of pressure to make sure their kids are sorted into the most distinctive pile. There is thus a lot of consequence here.

The contradiction, however, is that the more people obtain degrees, the less distinctive those degrees become.  This pushes people to find new ways to be distinctive: a degree from this elite college, or perhaps a master’s degree.  But this is an anxiety-fueled, credentials arms race – and although it can benefit colleges and universities financially, I’m not sure it is sustainable.  How many loans can the average American family bear?

Elite institutions flourish when demand is high and admission low.  Demand is measured by how many people you reject every year. But admission offices need to constantly balance the demands of coaches, wealthy donors, trustees, campus executives, ranking metrics, and alumni.  One’s job could be at risk if the wrong donor is unhappy, or if the institution falls in a popular ranking system. We therefore need to acknowledge that colleges and universities are not the ivory towers we like to pretend they are. Not any longer. Colleges and universities are extremely competitive, profit-focused enterprises that must reconcile competing aims: educational mission on one side and market on the other. The big secret is that admission offices are under as much pressure as parents are.

This pressure shifts in less-selective spaces, but does not diminish.

Less-selective institutions flourish based on higher enrollments, because their budgets are so closely tied to the number of students sitting in their classrooms.  Such institutions may have some strong standing locally, but like “Ravenwood” College, are not household names across the country.  For these colleges, the consequence to a bad year could be layoffs, contractions, budget cuts, or closures.  In fact, Ravenwood itself experienced some of these challenges.  And this is increasingly a concern: by some accounts, private colleges are closing at the rate of 11 per year!

Public universities are not cushioned from such pressures either; many states have so severely cut funding to public higher education in recent years that they must learn to play the market like private institutions. Colleges and universities want to appear distinctive for the same reasons that we all do.

In short, we have built a massive, comprehensive infrastructure to “objectively” identify, evaluate, measure, and sort us into piles. And this sorting machinery involves high school administrations, college recruiters, College Board test designers, marketing teams, private test prep centers, university administrations, college athletics, federal regulatory agencies, voluntary accrediting agencies, magazine publishers, student loan lenders, employers, faculty, students, and their families.

Attending college does not define our value as human beings, but it would be naïve to pretend that there was no consequence to how we get sorted. When employers take note of a particular name or brand, what they are really interested in is how we’ve been continuously sorted into the right bins across our lifetimes.  This scandal (and the many editorials since it broke) has revealed that this infrastructure is not objective.  The notion of meritocracy has long been at the heart of the rhetoric of education in American society, but is that machinery broken?

Students of history should know that we’ve never had an objective, merit-measuring machine; this is not the story of national decline that some have been preaching.  As many have been pointing out, affluent families systemically use their resources to give their kids advantage all the time – and always have.  There are boarding schools, expensive test-prep programs, legacy admissions, private counselors and coaches, private violin lessons and extravagant service trips to other countries that make for a great personal statement.  And despite some recent and limited interventions through affirmative action, communities of color have been systematically and appallingly excluded for centuries.

Operation Varsity Blues reveals that although the meritocracy machine is powerful and active, we should not always accept it at face value.  Not only in elite space, but at all levels, we must recognize individuals for their achievements while weighing them critically and skeptically.  In short, the best measure against a broken meritocracy machine is vigilant, morally-grounded people willing to challenge what they see. As long as we have the credentials arms race, there will be cheats and scammers – and the most noteworthy part of this scandal is not that some cheated, but that the wealthy perpetrators will face consequences.

Unless of course the siren call of some new big scandal distracts us.

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Always more to say

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How much more can be said? It seems like all the words have been used up.

I’ve been struggling with a new blog post for this site: one trying to tangle explicitly with self-promotion and brand in academia. Ironic, isn’t it, given that this site is basically an instance of these things? Well, regardless of how we feel about it, I think that academic self-promotion and brand is part of the landscape today, and I’ve been thinking about what to make of that. I’ve also been taking a little time off with my family, a last breather before the semester begins and the craziness comes with it. Of course another sort of craziness has come to this country. Although not surprising, recent events in Virginia (August 11, 2017) have been a stark and sharp reminder of my own white, male privilege – and of the contrasting reality for others around me.

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