Friday, March 23, 2007

What is Higher Education For?

Two recent stories have caught my interest. In the first, Hamilton College in New York has announced that it is eliminating merit scholarships, so that more aid may go to the needy. According to the AP story, the reason is that “colleges have been criticized for using their resources to lure high-achieving students — many of whom don't need the money to attend college — thereby improving a school's academic standing at the expense of its economic diversity.”

Meanwhile, in Britain, Theodore Dalrymple reports the following:

The government also announced a new policy on university admissions: henceforth, when selecting students, universities must enquire as to whether applicants’ parents have university degrees themselves, in order to discriminate against them and favor applicants whose parents do not have degrees.

In other words, the British government sees universities more as instruments of egalitarian social engineering than as institutions of teaching, scholarship, and research. And it is far easier, of course, to admit students from poorer and less educated homes to university by administrative fiat than it is to raise standards in the high schools that they attend so that they might actually benefit from a university education.

On both sides of the Atlantic we have universities deciding that economic leveling is a primary function of the university, displacing at least to some extent other objectives such as pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, rewarding merit or other things that conflict with this notion of social justice.

This is a disturbing trend. It assumes that a “college degree” is a magic elixir that undoes the inequalities of society. The reason that college graduates earn more than those without college degrees is not because the sorts of people likely to get into and succeed in college are different (at least on average) from those who do not, but because colleges are supernatural transformative devices that can take anyone, wave their curricular wands and turn out a uniform, undifferentiated "college graduate."

In addition, the university seems to assume no significant loss of high-achieving students, who "don’t need the money" (read: have a bottomless pit of it somewhere in one of their parents’ McMansions) to attend and will come even without the aid. Of course, if other schools don't go along and instead continue to offer the aid these students have demand curves just as negatively sloped as anyone else's, and will go where they get a better offer. If this happens, I suspect the university would in an ideal universe willingly incur these losses because "economic diversity" is its overpowering objective. Indeed, in the Hamilton case, some measure of the commitment to economic diversity at the expense of everything else can be gleaned from the fact that they are eliminating these merit scholarships even though it will increase the financial-aid pool by less than five percent.

If great colleges and universities are to succeed they must value achievement, intelligence and creativity. These measures suggest that increasingly many do not. They see their primary, perhaps only mission as remedying society’s broader injustices. Do not get me wrong; merit is not defined purely by SAT scores, nor is it found primarily among the wealthy. A college should search for it wherever it might be found. But ultimately merit – the ability to do the most with (in a sense far more profound than simply being able to earn more money) and to advance knowledge – has to be the first consideration for any school that aspires to anything. Turning the pursuit of knowledge and excellence into a scheme for undoing past wrongs and leveling society’s (often inaccurately) perceived unfairness is a mistake we, with our still unmatched higher-education system, will come to regret.



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