No More Merit

Christopher Kendall

College admission rates look increasingly uncertain for schools as the coronavirus pandemic causes many students to look at less expensive or closer-to-home options. Recently, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute proposed a radical option: colleges and universities should replace their entire admissions framework with a random lottery system.

Hess rightly takes aim at the failings of the current admissions system, which prioritizes highly-subjective criteria (think Harvard’s “personality scores”), but his solution destroys a fundamental practice of American higher education—that merit should play a decisive role in college admissions.

Radical ideas are not new for Hess. He has argued for building a new university outside of the current system in order to provide a space for conservative, libertarian, and other viewpoints that are traditionally excluded from the mainstream of academe.

Hess’s initial critique focuses on the movement of colleges and universities away from standardized testing such as the ACT, SAT, and AP exams. Many universities have gone “test optional” for the next admissions cycle, and, as Robert Schaeffer, Interim Executive Director of FairTest, has noted, schools that go test optional as an experiment typically keep those policies in place permanently.

This is a step in the right direction given the increasingly political bent these tests have shown over the years. The National Association of Scholars has documented this trend extensively over the years.

This, Hess notes, presents a challenge for colleges, as they have fewer tests upon which to rely. Moreover, abridged semesters leave far fewer opportunities for students to obtain reliable letters of recommendation, demonstrate interest and aptitude in sports, engage in extracurricular activities, and perform community service.

What remains? Essays and interviews, which give staff an extraordinary amount of discretion over admissions decisions. We are right to be skeptical of such an arrangement, particularly given the recent Varsity Blues scandal and the numerous instances of wealthy parents purchasing admittance for their children. Putting the decision in the hands of a few administrators will only exacerbate the trend by colleges and universities to privilege the elite, the wealthy, and the well-connected at the expense of those who do not possess similar advantages.

What then is the answer for a process nearly wholly unmoored from calculable measures of student ability? For Hess, the answer is a process entirely unmoored from student performance—a lottery, where colleges and universities will select their incoming class at random. This lottery would require a high school diploma or its equivalent, and nothing else.

Hess offers a few rationales for his scheme. First, we will be able to see whether the value of selective degrees is due to what colleges and universities teach their students or to the social benefit people accord an Ivy League education. But we don’t need a massive social science experiment to know this. Parents do not pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to admit their children to an Ivy League school to purchase an education, but a brand.

Second, “we’ll see if unlikely students actually benefit more from elite campuses than the usual suspects do.” But we already know that they do not. Consider the increasing prevalence of remedial classes at colleges and universities. Look at the drastic fall in admissions requirements coupled with rising rates of college dropouts. And the National Association of Scholars documented what happened at Yale when the university reduced requirements for incoming black students as a way to encourage greater diversity among the student body. Those students, in their own telling, were massively unprepared for university coursework.

This trend has not improved since the 1960s. Students today at Brown, Wesleyan, and other elite schools report similar instances of feeling overwhelmed by the rigorous academic work with which they are faced. Unlikely students have not been well-served by decades of intentional work and outreach on behalf of elite universities. Randomizing the selection process will not alter this fact.

Instead, students of all states, races, and income brackets ought to be encouraged to consider the opportunities afforded by local colleges, regional universities, and community colleges. Our system of higher education prioritizes the export of students away from hometowns, local areas, and “less-than” regions. We should focus on ways to incentivize students to, as Wes Jackson put it, “stay native to this place,” to put down roots and drink deep of those places in which they have lived, worked, and grown.

Opening admission to any student who applies, regardless of ability, is not likely to lead to a more equitable process or outcome for lower-income or less privileged students. Rather, selling admission to elite universities will become far easier. Administrators looking for a way to admit the underqualified child of a wealthy donor will no longer have to justify that applicant’s low test scores or poor record. Instead, the student will just be one of the lucky few—no need to check into the particulars. Hess proposes this system in part as an answer to the abuse of the current system. Yet colleges and universities will still reserve slots for legacy admissions, wealthy benefactors, and athletic prodigies.

Hess’s solution is not an alternative for those committed to the renewal, much less the survival, of the institutions that shape modern life and contemporary culture. Throwing in the towel on higher education admissions is not an answer.

Why not offer a practical alternative? Colleges and universities can offer, rather than traditional standardized tests, easily accessible online entrance exams, testing student’s knowledge on history, civics, math, science, grammar, logic, rhetoric, literature, and more. Some models exist already, such as the Classic Learning Test. This would allow universities to test for the knowledge that they believe to be the most valuable, and it would allow universities greater flexibility over the content it encourages students to learn before attending college.

Regardless of the specifics, colleges and universities must not seek solutions that eliminate talent, merit, and the responsibility to learn. When these no longer matter to students, then higher education will truly be dead.


Christopher Kendall is Director of Development at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Public Domain

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