Merit Denied

I may lose some of my liberal credentials with this post, but so be it. A recent editorial in the NY Times (link below), prompted by a report from the nonpartisan foundation Education Trust, has pushed some buttons for me.

The Times summarizes the report’s findings as demonstrating that public universities have begun to use their financial aid coffers to attract high-income students rather than low-income students:

“Public universities have been choking off college access and upward mobility for the poor by shifting away from the traditional need-based aid formula to a so-called merit formula that heavily favors affluent students.”

First hackle raised: “So-called merit?” While I am fully cognizant of the very real factors favoring affluent students in acquiring those quantifiable credentials beloved by selection committees, I am not prepared to throw out the idea of “merit” all together.

Friends and family can guess why. Education professionals have told us several times that we had better start saving the big bucks for our daughter’s education, because profound intelligence and high scholastic achievement are going to earn her a big pat on the back but no financial aid for college. Too bad that the housing bubble and the cost of meeting the educational needs of our profoundly gifted child for today (free and appropriate education my a**) have made it difficult for us to get those 529 funds for the future going just yet.

The Times editorial continues:

“The public universities were founded on the premise that they would provide broad access in exchange for taxpayer subsidies. That compact has been pretty much discarded in the state flagship campuses, which have increasingly come to view themselves as semiprivate colleges that define themselves not by inclusion, but by how many applicants they turn away, and how many of their students perform at the highest levels on the SAT, an index that clearly favors affluent teenagers who attend the best schools and have access to tutors.”

No argument with the first point. And I won’t dispute, too much, the idea that certain application criteria do indeed favor those “affluent teenagers.” I just have to object to the implied suggestion that high achievement is primarily the result of parental favors bestowed on the fortunate, if spoiled, child, and probably not the result of the student’s own abilities. (Especially not any innate abilities.)

Of course I object because even when my child was six I was hearing that her abilities, her test scores, her musical talent were likely the result of excessive parent coaching and culturally biased instruments of measure. Yes, there are helicopter parents, yes, IQ tests are imperfect. Just how many times will my daughter and her parents have to grovel at the feet of politically correct amateur social commentators before we can assert that, despite all of those problems, merit and intelligence are real things, and it makes some sense for institutions of higher learning — particularly public universities whose research is pointed toward public benefit — to seek out and encourage students who appear to possess those qualities?

One last note: What is high income, according to the report?

“In recent years, aid to students whose families earn over $100,000 has more than quadrupled at the public flagship and research universities.”

Now our family income is not as high as $100K. Neither is it less than $20K, the low-income group considered by the report. But I’m going to make the radical suggestion that while $100K is a nice round number, it’s a low floor for high income as discussed in the report. A family making $100K in my town, given the high cost of living, is going to be doing just fine, thank you, but they are not in the privileged group with access to the best schools and private tutors. How could they? Sending two kids to the best schools in our metro area would require almost 40% of their pre-tax income.

A family making $100K likely will not qualify for need-based assistance, either at the secondary or the post-secondary level. That seems more than reasonable. But it seems extremely unfair to me that such a family should be passed over for merit-based assistance, especially if that decision is based on the misguided assumption that the student’s merit is derived mainly from extreme wealth and privilege.

The Times editorial concludes:

“The college degree has become the basic price of admission to both the middle class and the new global economy. Unless the country reverses this trend [of failing to assist poor students], upward mobility through public higher education will pretty much come to a halt.”

Well, Amen, I say.

But the mistrust of merit and intelligence continues to prevent the full flowering of students who could contribute much to that middle class and that global economy. For too many highly gifted students, access to appropriate education—at any cost—has already come to a halt. And we are all poorer as a result.

See links below for full details:

Education Trust Report: Engines of Inequality [link now dead]

Times Editorial: Public College as ‘Engines of Inequality’ [now in archives; subscription only]

Davidson Institute: Genius Denied

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