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‘The Merit Myth’

A new book, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America (The New Press), challenges the way colleges admit and educate students. It calls for affirmative action to change, for colleges to adopt a range of policies to admit a more diverse group of applicants (with diversity defined to mean more than race), and for the United States to offer two years of postsecondary education to all.

The authors are Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; Peter Schmidt, the author of Color and Money and a former reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education; and Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown center.

Carnevale responded to email questions about the book.

Q: What are some of the ways that colleges favor the white and wealthy?

A: Since the mid-1980s, when college became the most well-traveled pathway to economic and social empowerment, we have looked to our colleges to validate our belief that we’re responsible for our own destinies and that those who are broke or stuck in a lousy job have only themselves to blame. We have bought in to the idea that our colleges are legitimate social and economic sorting mechanisms because it validates our commitment to individual responsibility and merit. After all, a person has to do the homework and ace the tests to get into the best colleges and move on to the best jobs that confer wealth and power over others.

Fair enough? Not really. In a society where people start out unequal, educational attainment measured by test scores and grades can become a dodge -- a way of laundering the found money that comes with being born into the right bank account or the dominant race. The college game is fixed long before the selective college admissions officers get involved, but college has become the capstone in an inequality machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes.

On the long pathway from kindergarten to good jobs, the most talented disadvantaged youth don’t end up doing nearly as well as the least talented advantaged youth. A child from a family in the top quartile of family income and parental education who has low test scores has a 71 percent chance of graduating from college and getting a good job by their mid-20s. However, a child from a low-income family but with top test scores has only a 31 percent chance of graduating from college and getting a good job by then. And the numbers are even worse for talented low-income racial and ethnic minorities.

As educators we are all connected as interlocking gear wheels in the machinery of economic and racial injustice. Higher education is now the capstone within an educational system that sorts winners from losers and always invests the next education dollar in the winners. It magnifies the inequality dutifully delivered to it by the K-12 system and projects that inequality further into the labor market, creating new waves of advantage that guarantee the intergenerational reproduction of class and racial privilege.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed