The above chart is from a report by the California Academic Senate suggesting that the university system of the state of California keep the SAT as part of their admissions process. The report is from April. Nevertheless, the UC system has temporarily suspended the SAT/ACT as a requirement. Eventually, they may phase it out permanently, or, develop their own test. The SAT/ACT are apparently allowed to be used optionally as part of one’s admissions profile.
If you read this weblog you know that I am very skeptical of this move. But that’s not super important. I just want to outline the reasons the UC did this, for historical purposes, and what it presages about the nature of American meritocracy (or lack thereof).
Coronavirus notwithstanding, the UC system faces some major headwinds:
– The likely collapse of wealthy Chinese demand for American degrees (due to worries about a new “Cold War”)
– The demographic shift as university-age cohorts begin to shrink in size, reducing domestic demand
– The UC, in particular, having a racial-ethnic problem, with an overrepresentation of people of Asian background
Getting rid of SAT/ACT at selective universities opens the door for more affluent students from out of state to shore up the finances of the system. And, applicants of Asian background tend to do quite well on standardized tests, despite their well known unpleasant personalities. So getting rid of these metrics will help in racial balancing.
The long-term impact thought is more interesting. The UC system as one of the main engines of California’s meritocracy will become a thing of the past, as it transforms into a spoils system, as well as a cash cow to service its employees.
Whenever I argue about tests and testing on the internet I’m struck by the historical ignorance exhibited by many skeptics and critics of testing. Believe it or not, wealthy and connected people do not need to do well on tests to get ahead in life. Historically, back to the early Chinese bureaucracy selection competitions, tests were a way to identify those with promise and talent without connections. Tests were imperfect, and benefited those with resources, but, the truly connected would have benefited from a system without tests because there was no chance for those without connections in a world of letters of introduction. The system is always rigged in favor of the privileged. It’s just that some systems are more rigged in favor of the privilege than others.
The type of people who think abolishing the SAT will further equity may have a point in a very narrow sense. It will make the aim of racial/ethnic balancing much easier in holistic admissions (really one will see the reemergence of separate pools). But if you offload admissions criteria to variables that are more subjectively interpreted, you will give admissions committees more power and discernment. The reality is that people generally favor those who resemble themselves in most ways that are not explicitly stated for diversity. For example, my friends in academia are very into “inclusion,” but invariably shocked when I suggest ideological and religious diversity as part of this. I don’t myself care about such diversity, but if you want to include “everyone” then shouldn’t that be on the table? (the reality is no one is ever going to put that on the table because most people either don’t care or, positively believe they should select people aligned with their own ideology and beliefs)
Standardized testing is a small piece of an overall system. That system is blind, harsh, and operates automatically. These blind automatic systems are going to benefit oddballs because oddballs lack conventional gifts and endowments. When a system allows for human judgment, people will select those whom it is expected they select. I assume that student bodies will become racially more diverse, but there will be minimal effect on class. Because the system will be less transparent, connections and lanes will matter more. Admissions will become an intense game of politics and angles that mid-20th century Americans could never have imagined.
The main path I see out of this rat race is if we de-emphasize higher education, especially elite education, as pathways to success. If you allow admissions committees to be more subjective and use their judgment, and the stakes remain as high or higher than today, there is no way they won’t select the people they prefer, rather than the best people.
Keep your patrons close. You’ll need them in the coming century.