Last week, the College Board, the company in charge of developing and administering one of the United States’ standard college aptitude tests, known as the SAT, announced that, in addition to providing universities with a standardized score based on test results, they would provide colleges with an adversity score for each student. This score, which is based on a number of factors—such as the socioeconomic status of the applicant’s neighborhood, its crime rate, and the availability of AP classes—is meant to broadly reflect the social and economic conditions which might influence the student’s scores. While a number of people on the left have been advocating for taking individual applicants’ socioeconomic status into account for years (an aim reflected—albeit weakly—in affirmative action programs), the reaction to this solution has been clear: people aren’t happy. But there is less reason to worry than you might think.
Why might such a policy prove disastrous? Most objections center on the idea that, by admitting students based on adversity rather than pure merit, higher education is in some way devalued. This is certainly true—but is it such a bad thing? The devaluing of education in the US affects two types of elites: the true elite and the cognitive elite. The true elites, as defined by mathematical ecologist turned cultural evolutionist Peter Turchin, are the old money types one thinks of when one sees the logo of Harvard or Vanderbilt University. The true elites fill higher-order positions in society, often accepting limited positions as US senators or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, hence ensuring a stable oligarchy at the top rung of our society. See, for example, the rich families in modern Florence, Italy who were also rich seven hundred years ago. The cognitive elite, as defined by Charles Murray, are a recent factor in our societal dynamics. As the United States ballooned into a post-industrial society, beginning in the 1960s, demand for people to carry out non-menial work grew: as a result, one’s smarts afforded one a ticket out of obscure places like Miles City, Montana and into the hallowed halls of Harvard University. Both true and cognitive elites are essential to the healthy functioning of a modern society: the true elites supposedly ensure some form of stability in governance, while the cognitive elites produce more and more goods, which ultimately benefits the whole of society.
The devaluation of higher education—and of education in general—is nothing new. Accusations that policies are devaluing education have been omnipresent in debates over America’s No Child Left Behind policy and in virtually every serious discussion of affirmative action. This process of devaluation has been a long time coming—ask anyone who teaches high school. While a high school diploma, as opposed to a college degree, used to be the gold standard for employment, it’s almost impossible to fail public school these days. Giving in to the devaluation of the education system does not mean resigning oneself to its demise just because it’s happening and there’s nothing one can do about it. However, the devaluation of education is largely a natural process and is probably due to exogenous factors. For example, compulsory education, when it was first instituted in the US, ended at the age of fourteen. It was later extended to age sixteen, and today the standard age for school leavers is eighteen. The shift to compulsory education for most states came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. While some have argued that this shift was only designed to mitigate the effects of child labor, many states converted to the new system due to the productivity gains that came with a more educated workforce, able to compete for and comprehend more complex jobs—a development which resulted in a wave of industrialization.
The impact of such developments has been measured (including among minorities) numerous times and the results published in educational and policy journals. At one point, the new twelve-year education devalued the eight-year education it replaced, which, in turn, had devalued the four-year education (based solely on the three ‘R’s of Reading, Writing and ’Rithmetic) it replaced. To survive in the post-industrial information era, additional years of education are almost essential. Not only must we bring students up to date with the concepts that were present in the 1960s and 1980s, they must now be prepared for the new world of the 2010s. In essence, the College Board has done something both the government and higher education have failed to do—by devaluing university degrees for them. The breakdown of higher education has increasingly meant that those of us who attended university to signal to employers that we’re hard workers, get a job that our high-school peers couldn’t get—and ultimately find a stepping stone to join the upper class—are dinosaurs. The true and cognitive elites are two of the most important groups that will be impacted by this new score, but as Rob Henderson argues in Psychology Today, several studies indicate that our elites already have avenues of their own for maintaining their hegemonies. For the true elite, Harvard is just a formality. For the cognitive elite, there’s evidence that the job market provides much of the trim we’re looking for (and, if not, perhaps we need to crack down on its quota systems).
Most importantly, there’s one other group that can ultimately be toxic to society as a whole and that is also omnipresent in the higher education system: the elite aspirants. This group consists of those going the extra mile to try to become a member of some form of true elite. Every child who hears that going to college is a ticket to becoming an astronaut, a CEO at a Fortune 500 company—or even president—is an elite aspirant. Elite aspirants, while not bad in theory, are bad during times of the overproduction of elites, when too many of them are created with too few positions for them to fill. During times of elite overproduction, dissatisfaction with the ruling classes rises and society tends towards ever greater discord (Turchin’s most recent book on this subject is titled Ages of Discord). Indeed, Turchin has worked hard to show that elite overproduction is not only toxic but has proven to be an existential threat to civilization in both recent and ancient history.
It’s time we stopped selling the dangerous myth that college is your ticket to elitehood. With the rising IQs that have resulted from the Flynn effect, is it any surprise that more and more people are attending college? Keeping the system closed off only creates more false elite aspirants. As soon as we embrace the fact that higher education is little more than an extension of basic education, we can stop paying millions of dollars to grievance scholars who produce intellectual bloat for their valuable work.
It’s for these reasons that I embrace the SAT’s new statistic, no matter how broken it is. We already know that extensions to compulsory education have improved the position of minorities in the past, and, while giving an unqualified individual a position that someone more qualified could have occupied is unhelpful, most colleges are dying to increase their attendance numbers. For most majors, higher education has become nothing more than an expensive four-year extension of high school. The majors our civilization relies on—the disciplines that produce our programmers, bridge-builders and doctors—still have their guilds and benefit from the trimming effects that a competitive job market provides. We should be more concerned about threats like woke capitalism and racial quotas, rather than the devaluation of our already stripped-down universities.