The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal brought corruption at American universities into the public eye. Rich people bought fraudulent test scores and bribed school officials in order to get their children into top colleges. Public outrage spread beyond the scandal’s criminal face, to the legacy preferences by which universities legally favor the privileged children of their own graduates. After all, the actions in the Varsity Blues case became criminal only because the universities themselves failed to capture the proceeds of their own corruption.
The outrage was natural and warranted. There is literally nothing to say in favor of a system that allows the rich to circumvent the meritocratic competition that governs college admissions for everyone else. But the outrage also distracts from and even disguises a broader and deeper corruption in American education, which arises not from betraying meritocratic ideals but, rather, from pursuing them. Meritocracy itself casts a dark shadow over education, biasing decisions about who gets it, distorting the institutions that deliver it, and corrupting the very idea of educational excellence.
The methods of meritocratic schooling drive the corruption forward. Scores on the SAT (formally called the Scholastic Assessment Test), grade point averages (GPAs), and college rankings—the metrics that organize and even tyrannize meritocratic education in the United States today—are manifestly absurd. It’s not just that SAT scores, GPAs, and rankings are culturally biased or that they lack predictive validity. These familiar complaints have a point, but they all proceed from the fanciful belief that merit may be measured and that meritocracy, if properly administered, supports opportunity for all and thereby makes unequal outcomes okay. The familiar objections argue only that the metrics are poorly designed and so miss their meritocratic marks. In some instances, as when SAT scores are criticized for poorly predicting college GPAs, the criticisms simply prefer one measure over another. But the real root of the trouble with SATs, GPAs, and rankings is deeper and different: These metrics do not and, in fact, cannot measure any intelligible conception of excellence at all. And really appreciating this objection requires stepping outside meritocracy’s conventional imaginative frame.