New book: Georgetown authors explore higher ed’s role in fostering, fixing inequality

A new book, titled The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America, explores how the nation’s approach to college preparation, funding, access, and admissions has only exacerbated America’s growing inequality. 

Written by Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW); Peter Schmidt, the author of Color and Money; and Jeff Strohl, CEW’s director of research, The Merit Myth shows that a staggering 60 to 70 percent of the growth in earnings gaps since the 1980s can be traced back to disparities in college access and in the completion of degrees with value in the labor market.  

Higher education “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,” Carnevale told Inside Higher Ed

Just 19 percent of Black and Latine students with high SAT scores go on to attend selective colleges and universities, compared with 31 percent of white students with high scores. And 44 percent of white workers today hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 30 percent and 20 percent of Black and Latine workers, respectively, according to a summary of the book. “We’ve created a deeply entrenched upper caste,” Carnevale said in a statement. “We need a reform agenda that will expand opportunity and increase social mobility.”

A framework for system-wide change

The book offers several policy recommendations, from ending higher ed’s overreliance on the ACT/SAT to abandoning legacy admissions, moving away from merit-based aid, evaluating colleges based on their students’ social mobility and employment outcomes, and requiring colleges to ensure that low-income students account for at least 20 percent of their student body. 

The authors call for taking a holistic approach to the high school, college, and career continuum, approaching them as one system and prioritizing stronger career counseling during college. In addition, they urge colleges to revisit admissions practices to ensure they are admitting a socioeconomically and racially diverse student body, and assert that the U.S. government should expand its educational commitment to provide two years of postsecondary education for every student. 

“Educational equity is our best hope for finding a new route forward as a country—one that will secure the health of our economy and democracy while ensuring dignity, opportunity, and political participation for our nation’s people,” Schmidt said.

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