Mandatory SATs and Upward Mobility
The American Dream is inextricably linked with the prospect of ordinary Americans for economic and social upward mobility. Few American statesmen stated this idea more succinctly or to better political effect than President Bill Clinton, who said, “The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.”
Now if one is willing to make the reasonable assumption that God is not a card-carrying Republican but instead chooses to distribute native or potential talents to peoples across social classes like honey poured on toast, then it follows that the twin social goals of democratic inclusion and economic meritocracy need not be contradictory. Keeping both of these goals in mind, public policy should be designed to remove artificial impediments from economically and socially marginalized persons to provide them with the means and incentive for their entry into the fullness of social and economic life.
Unleash people’s abilities and incentive to work hard and play by the rules, and upward economic mobility will take care of itself, so goes this line of thought.
It’s widely understood that an important institutional motor driving democratic inclusion and meritocracy is education—especially public education, and in particular affordable and democratic access to higher education. Economic mobility across class lines is virtually unthinkable if higher education practices reinforce rather than break down economic privilege.
Houston, we have a problem.
Suffice it to say that the actual relationship between higher education and upward mobility is not simple. While it is true that higher education for poorer students is often rewarded after graduation with considerable economic gain, it is also lamentably true that access to higher education itself is dramatically skewed in favor of the rich. Worse yet, the better the school’s reputation, the greater the tilt in favor of the wealthy. The likelihood of going to college is not only much higher for those with economic means, but the most selective schools—the schools whose alumni inhabit the economic, cultural, and political establishments that govern society–are overwhelmingly populated from students drawn from the ranks of the wealthiest of families. And on and on it goes.
Those who recently have either been to college or who have observed their own high school graduate children do so are well aware that the college application experience can feel overwhelming. The process is conducted online, and the amount of work to apply required in some cases is daunting. Many college applications entail multiple deadlines (for early decision; for early admission; for regular admission; for various scholarships; for letters of support; for the ACT or SAT; for the dreaded FAFSA; for enrollment deposits, and so on). The applications and SAT tests are pricey, too. I work in higher education, and I confess to shepherding my perfectly capable kids through the process. It was a protective choice that not every parent would make for their children, and I respect parents who let their kids sink or swim on their own. But for many parents offering such guidance is not a realistic option even if they wish to provide it. For many folks the process is alien and intimidating and expensive. As a result, many capable young people do not go to college not because they do not have any interest in doing so but because they fail to complete the application process properly. For many schools with a large surplus of talented students knocking on the door, eliminating applicants who’ve missed a deadline or who’ve failed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s is an easy and seemingly fair way of culling the pack.
This is not the column to explore the root causes of these problems or to discuss in length a comprehensive solution, as if there actually were one. But at least one simple recent prescription might prove to be at least modestly beneficial. Last week the Brookings Institution proposed that every state adopt making the SAT or ACT a state-paid free exam, administered during regular school hours, and mandatory for every student. Presently about a dozen states already enforce similar measures, and according to Brookings, the results are modest but significant and positive. According to Brookings, in Michigan the test has been an effective tool for “discovering” talented low-income kids who otherwise would not have taken the exam and would have unlikely gone to college:
“Among low-income students, the effect was even more dramatic: for every 1,000 low-income students who had taken the test before 2007 and scored well, another 480 college-ready, low-income students were uncovered by the universal test.”
Combining universal and mandatory (and free) college-board exams with a program for targeting college recruitment of disadvantaged groups –if coupled with a commensurate financial commitment by the state to such groups–could go some distance in bringing more qualified economically disadvantaged groups into higher education. The access gap between rich and poor would remain large, but this policy could be an important step in the right direction. Of course, securing a “commensurate financial commitment” for low-income students poses another nettlesome problem altogether–and one becoming more Sisyphean by the year. Public opinion shifts over time, of course, but dramatic lurches are relatively uncommon. Which is why the precipitous drop in regard for higher education among Republicans is truly troubling.
But that’s a topic for another day.