A tour group walks through the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Daniel Markovits, the Guido Calabresi professor of law at Yale Law School, is the author of “The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite.”

Meritocracy seems like common sense. Who could possibly object to the idea that people should get ahead based on their own accomplishments, rather than their parents’ social class? This seems the natural way to give everyone a fair shot at success. But meritocracy is not the great leveler that we often hold it up to be. The system is rigged. Inequality is as bad as ever. And meritocracy is the culprit.

Myth No. 1

College admissions are
driven by corruption.

The recent Varsity Blues scandal, described by The Washington Post as a “far-reaching college admissions conspiracy” and by Axios as “the tip of the iceberg,” reinforced the impression that elites engage in widespread cheating to get their kids into top universities. Legal forms of elite self-dealing, such as advantages for big donors and legacy preferences, reach more broadly still. Meanwhile, high-achieving middle school students from poor families are less likely to graduate from college than low-achieving students from rich ones. Narratives and numbers like these make it seem that college admissions is dominated by nepotism and outright corruption rather than merit. 

But those (real, serious) problems distort a system that is, mostly, meritocratic. The lengths that families went to in the Varsity Blues scandal — one allegedly paid $6.5 million to get a child into Stanford — highlight just how unusual outright, illegal corruption remains. And while legacy preferences are immoral, legacy applicants also tend to have strong academic credentials. Elite colleges are full of extremely high-level academic achievers: Harvard’s median student scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT. And the five highest-ranked law schools collectively enroll roughly two-thirds of all applicants nationwide whose LSAT scores were in the 99th percentile. These numbers would look very different if corruption and nepotism alone dominated elite admissions.

Myth No. 2

A meritocracy ensures opportunities for all.

Arthur C. Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, writes that “we are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy [and] embrace a system that rewards merit.” Calls to end legacy preferences in college admissions are often justified by the claim that they are “anti-meritocratic.” These ideas reflect a widespread belief that “social mobility, where those who do well can rise and those who don’t will fall, is a key component of meritocracy,” as one Washington Post essay put it.

But economic inequality turns meritocracy into a mechanism by which rich parents can pass their privilege down to their children. No area of household spending is more sensitive to rising incomes than on education, which means inequality warps outcomes. The richest school districts now spend more than twice as much per student per year as middle-class schools, and elite private schools spend up to six times as much. That helps yield higher scores on standardized tests and admissions to more elite universities. 

Academically, children of elite parents now dramatically outperform middle-class children. Students whose parents make more than $200,000 per year now score about 250 points higher on the SAT than students whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000 and about 390 points higher than students whose parents make less than $20,000. Data released by the College Board suggests that, in 2016, more than 15,000 high-schoolers with a parent who held a graduate degree scored over 750 on the SAT’s critical reading test (roughly the Ivy League median), compared with fewer than 100 whose parents had not completed high school. When meritocratic admissions favor elite applicants, higher education is more like a hurdle than a gateway to social mobility.

Myth No. 3

Elite private education is paid for by the families who use it.

Private education’s very name announces a separation from the public system and, by implication, from public funding. The language of paying for private schools and colleges — “need based” scholarships for those who are not rich and “merit based” scholarships for exceptional students — reinforces this message. Rich families presumably pay their own way.

But that’s not really true. Private schools and colleges earn endowment income tax-free, and alumni donations are tax-deductible. These advantages have conspired to allow elite private schools to become extravagantly wealthy, while subsidized by taxpayers. A super-elite private high school such as Phillips Exeter Academy might have an endowment of more than $1 billion; the 10 biggest university endowments total more than $200 billion. All this means that the public is subsidizing the wealthiest students. In a recent year, the tax exemptions granted to Princeton University — which educates more students from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom half — amounted to a subsidy of $105,000 per student, compared with public education spending of $12,300 per student at Rutgers and $2,400 per student at Essex County College in Newark. Overall, the generally rich students at the richest 10 percent of colleges pay just 20 cents for every dollar spent on their educations, whereas the generally poor and middle-class students at the poorest 10 percent of colleges pay 78 cents on the dollar.

Myth No. 4

Technological innovation makes inequality inevitable.

A 2016 report by the Obama administration found that “83 percent of jobs making less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation, as compared to 31 percent of jobs making between $20 and $40 per hour and 4 percent of jobs making above $40 per hour.” The McKinsey Global Institute — the consulting firm’s research arm — forecasts that about a third of the U.S. workforce, overwhelmingly in mid-skilled jobs, will be displaced by automation by 2030. And the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen devoted an entire book, “Average Is Over,” to arguing that automation and algorithmic processing will inexorably replace mid-skilled, middle-class workers with machines, even as they benefit the superskilled.

But that replacement isn’t inevitable; it would be a result of choices made by policymakers and elites. Technology depends on social and economic forces. The Industrial Revolution was stimulated when a wave of unskilled workers reached England’s cities, and the innovations of industrial production, which targeted this new labor source, helped make unskilled workers more productive and thus more valuable. Present-day innovation’s overwhelming bias in favor of skilled workers reflects the same mechanism, now pushing in the opposite direction — it reduces the need for unskilled labor. The meritocrats produced by our unequal education system call forth technologies that favor their skills and hollow out the middle class. 

If we had a different training system, we’d have different technologies. Even today, other countries where schooling is more equal (for example, Germany) produce innovations that benefit mid-skilled workers and reduce the gap between middle-class and elite wages.

Myth No. 5

Meritocracy serves
the winners well.

The average incomes of the CEOs of the 350 largest American firms reached about $15 million in 2018. What’s more, meritocracy promises spiritual flourishing and not just material wealth. A former president of Yale University once wryly observed that meritocratic competition came to appeal even to once-resistant elites: “The privileged took pride in the feeling that they had made it on the merits rather than on the basis of something ambiguously called ‘background.’ ”

But meritocracy is also a pitiless struggle to get and stay ahead. The competition for admission to elite colleges has become so intense that almost any failure disqualifies an applicant. The strain exacts a toll, and students at rich high schools are now more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than students from poor backgrounds and are two or three times as likely as average students to suffer anxiety and depression. After graduation, meritocrats must work with crushing intensity to extract a return from their extravagant educations. Elite lawyers bill nearly twice as many hours per year today as they did in 1960; bankers’ hours — a term derived from the 10-to-3 business day once fixed by banks and later used to refer to any light work — have given way to the ironically named “banker nine-to-five,” which begins at 9 a.m. on one day and runs through 5 a.m. on the next. A person who extracts income from his skills by placing himself at the disposal of others uses himself up — even if that income is enormous.

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