The Collegiate War Against Merit

Two more Ivies have dropped the Dean’s List.

A story in Inside Higher Ed last week revealed that two more Ivy League schools, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, have stopped publishing “dean’s lists” that recognize high levels of academic achievement. As one anonymous Penn alumnus put it, “The war against individual achievement continues unabated.” Other Ivies (e.g., Brown and Harvard) had already abandoned—or never really embraced—the concept of recognizing merit in this manner.

Why is this happening? As Inside Higher Ed interpreted it, “Some universities are working to address a culture of perfectionism on campus, where students feel pressured to earn the highest grades, participate in the most extracurriculars or land the most elite internships.”

Much of higher education is contemptuous of the values that produced American exceptionalism.Let’s stamp out excellence, the pernicious act of striving to do better, learning more, and becoming more productive students and citizens. In short, let’s show disdain for the attributes that made the United States the most prosperous nation in the world and attracted millions of Americans to its shores.

Additionally, if we reduce published indicators or even our knowledge of student success or potential, we can better disguise our efforts to get around the Supreme Court’s mandate, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, that colleges stop employing blatant racial discrimination in admissions. This no doubt is a factor in many elite schools abandoning the SAT or ACT as a requirement for admission. (Kudos to Dartmouth and Yale, however, for recently restoring test requirements.) To some college administrators, ignorance is bliss.

These latest moves are still another sign that much of higher education is contemptuous of the values that produced American exceptionalism, among them appropriately and generously rewarded hard work. To some, it is not enough for colleges to promote racism, anti-Semitism, and a war on men (as demonstrated by the underreported sharp decline in male enrollments). They also need to extol the virtues of mediocracy, of doing less for more rather than more for less.

Collegiate leaders seem to be saying, “Our goal should be to reduce student anxiety and increase their self-esteem”—or perhaps even allow students to enjoy themselves by engaging in raucous socialization, including lots of drugs, sex, and alcohol, in a Gap Period of four or five years between adolescence and the Real World. Students at my university tell me that they are given welcoming bags of gifts, including a generous supply of condoms.

American higher education’s Move to Mediocrity has not happened overnight. Grade inflation began in earnest in the 1970s and continues unabated to this day. In the 1950s or 1960s, the typical undergraduate college course grade was a bit higher than a “C.” Large portions of freshmen students received “D” and “F” grades in classes. I picked up one of my own gradebooks from the mid-1960s for an introductory economics class and saw that, out of 88 students, only three earned “A” or “A-” grades. That was rather typical. Today, the average grade at some of the Ivy League schools is roughly an “A-.”

The war against merit, over time, will literally cost lives.Other evidence supports the new Do-Less-For-More attitude prevailing on college campuses. Government time-use surveys have been conducted periodically since the middle of the last century, and they show that, around 1960, the typical college student spent about 40 hours weekly on academics—going to class, studying for tests, writing papers, preparing oral reports, etc. Data for this century suggest that that figure has declined to about 28 hours—a 30-percent decline. Grades are going way up, while studying and work efforts are going way down.

Nor is the war against merit confined to our nation’s elite private universities. Let us go to the other end of the spectrum, community colleges. By far the largest system of such schools is in California. Santi Tafarella, an English professor at Antelope Valley College, recently told, in the Wall Street Journal, how his college president asked the Faculty Senate to endorse the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Glossary of Terms,” a document (fatwa?) distributed by the California Community Colleges system that declares that “merit protects White privilege under the guise of standards” and “is embedded in the ideology of Whiteness and upholds race-based structural inequality.”

My less-charitable interpretation of the Cal standards is that promoting the academic achievement of students by stressing merit is wrong, since that puts trivial things like the acquisition of knowledge and critical-thinking skills ahead of truly important things like the color of students’ skin.

The voting, taxpaying citizens of the Golden State have twice voted by big margins to prohibit so-called collegiate affirmative-action directives that authorize and even promote policies based on race or other similar characteristics, with a large segment of nonwhites (the Asian community) spearheading the effort. Obviously, the state’s higher-education officials have their own, contrary ideas and intend to continue running the colleges and universities according to their own utopian visions.

The war against merit not only promotes academic mediocrity and endangers America’s leadership in higher education, but it probably, over time, will literally cost lives.

We should either prohibit or make it very costly for colleges to run massive DEI bureaucracies.Higher education trains our healthcare providers, and if medical schools, for example, choose students on the basis of their skin color rather than on objective criteria related to merit, such as MCAT scores and undergraduate grades, in the long run we will almost certainly be lowering the competency of our physicians, literally endangering lives.

If I had Putin-like powers and ran our country, what would I do? Many things, but let me list just four that would promote academic merit.

First, I would ban the collection of data on race.

Second, I would either prohibit or make it very costly for colleges to run massive DEI bureaucracies that promote identifying students on the basis of things other than merit.

Third, for schools receiving government aid, I would prohibit the average undergraduate grade point average from exceeding 2.7 on a four-point scale—roughly a “B-” average grade—with no more than 15 percent of all undergraduate grades being “A”s.

Fourth, at the state level, I would fund students, not schools (via scholarships or vouchers), with funding varying according to student merit and need. This list is far from exhaustive, but it would be a good start in making academic achievement Job One in American higher education.

Richard K. Vedder is distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University. His next book is Let Colleges Fail: Creative Destruction in Higher Education