Consequences of Eroding Meritocracy

In the U.S., college admissions have become a political battleground. In the wake of the Harvard and UNC decisions, many schools–probably most–have vowed to do away with all objective test requirements so that they can continue engaging in race discrimination. What will the consequences be for the quality of post-secondary education?

A clue comes from the U.K., where a much less severe erosion of meritocracy has had malign consequences, as the London Times reports. The context of the Times story is that, on account of covid, test requirements for admission to England’s elite universities were temporarily relaxed:

Students whose A-level results were graded by their teachers during the pandemic are dropping out of university in record numbers, with “close to 30 per cent” quitting some degree courses.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said that teenagers receiving their A-level results must brace themselves for lower grades than last year because universities need to be able to properly distinguish between candidates.
“It is vital that qualifications hold value so that universities and employers understand the distinction between grades when recruiting, and pupils get the opportunities they deserve.”

Those common-sense ideas used to be universal, but now have largely been abandoned by American universities. More:

It is thought that many teenagers, who were awarded generous A-level grades during the Covid-19 crisis when exams were cancelled and teachers awarded grades, have struggled to cope at university.
In a letter to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership last week, Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator at Ofqual, the exams watchdog, said she “has a duty to make sure that [examination] grades reflect what students know, understand and can do”.

A source said: “Data shows that close to 30 per cent of young people are dropping out of [some] university courses in the two years of the pandemic grading. It is not in young people’s interests to have grading arrangements that do not appropriately support their progression.” When grades are not “an accurate reflection of what students know and can do, they do not help their students with their next steps”, the source insisted.

In the U.S., as objective testing is abandoned as a criterion for admission, admissions will inevitably become more random, especially since grade inflation at the high school level means that there are a vast number of high school seniors with impressive-looking GPAs. Universities will rely more heavily on student essays, which probably means that high school students who play to the political biases of the universities are most likely to get in. But the quality of incoming freshmen at selective institutions is sure to decline.

How will universities respond? Probably not in the same manner as we are seeing in the U.K. Rather, my guess is that they will dumb down their curricula and continue to inflate grades so that the decline in student achievement will be less visible. Less visible, anyway, until students enter the workforce. But the same pressures are at work there.

The abandonment of meritocracy can only have negative, and ultimately perhaps catastrophic, results.

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