PROF. JENKINS: 'The academic left’s war on merit'

According to a recent report from Campus Reform, over 1800 U.S. colleges and universities no longer require entrance exams—and that number seems to be growing each year.

Rob Jenkins is a Higher Education Fellow with Campus Reform and a tenured associate professor of English at Georgia State University - Perimeter College. In a career spanning more than three decades at five different institutions, he has served as a head men’s basketball coach, an athletic director, a department chair, and an academic dean, as well as a faculty member. Jenkins' opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer.


Along with its relentless push for “equity,” the Left is also waging all-out war on academic excellence, or merit. Indeed, those two tactics go hand in hand, because equity and merit are mutually exclusive concepts. 

“Equity,” as I wrote for Campus Reform a few weeks ago, refers not to equality of opportunity—something most Americans are on board with—but rather to equality of outcome. To use a racing analogy, the equity zealots demand everyone finish at the same time, regardless of how fast they can run. 

Conversely, the concept of merit recognizes that such outcomes never occur naturally—they can only be artificially imposed. In the real world, some will always finish ahead of others due to their ability, work ethic, and character. 

That’s one reason college admissions, especially at self-styled “selective” schools, have traditionally been based on merit: because we believe applicants who demonstrate superior academic ability should receive preference. 

The other reason is that experience indicates those applicants are more likely to excel, and society has a vested interest in producing the best doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers possible.  

Unfortunately, that standard is now under attack because it clashes with leftwing notions of equity. To the Left, the fact that everyone does not achieve equally constitutes prima facie evidence of discrimination, which can be remedied only by abandoning the merit system altogether. 

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This is the animating assumption behind the ‘test-optional’ movement, which seeks to downplay the role of standardized college entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT, in the admissions process. 

According to a recent report from Campus Reform, over 1800 U.S. colleges and universities no longer require entrance exams—and that number seems to be growing each year. 

How closely standardized test scores correlate to academic success is a topic of some debate. Numerous studies, however—including one conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT, and another by independent scholars—indicate that they are indeed reliable predictors, especially when combined with other factors like high school grades. 

Meanwhile, researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that high school grades alone are inadequate at predicting success. The quality of high schools simply varies too greatly, even among neighboring communities. 

To the equity crowd, though, the fact that some students outperform others on standardized exams merely proves the exams themselves are biased—especially if some of the students who don’t perform as well come from ‘underrepresented groups.’

That hypothesis completely ignores other possible explanations for any discrepancies, such as cultural norms, family circumstances, economic status, and personal choices. It also conveniently overlooks the fact that minority students with high test scores tend to do just as well in college as their white counterparts.  

Nevertheless, some institutions now see ‘going test optional’ as a way around the Supreme Court’s 2003 prohibition against racial quotas in college admissions. If they can’t elevate applicants with lower test scores over those with higher scores to meet some arbitrary “equity” goal—well, they’ll just get rid of the pesky tests.  

This strategy serves no one well, except perhaps college administrators. In particular, many less qualified students will either fail because they can’t handle the work or (more likely) simply be awarded diplomas, anyway, because that’s what equity demands. 

The inevitable result will be, in years to come, a less competent workforce. 

Sadly, the Left’s war on merit is not confined to the bachelor’s degree. It begins in high school (if not before) and extends through post-graduate study. 

In my home state of Georgia, for example, the Democrat candidate for governor, Stacy Abrams, has proposed making C students eligible for HOPE Scholarships—traditionally given to the brightest and most accomplished high school graduates in the state. 

By definition, a C average reflects mediocrity. But those are the students to whom the Left would now award “merit” scholarships, thereby negating the very idea of merit (not to mention eliminating a powerful motivator). 

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Graduate and professional programs are also moving away from merit-based admissions. The American Bar Association recently recommended that law schools no longer require students to take the LSAT, even though it has long been recognized as an excellent predictor of success at that level. 

Even medical schools are getting in on the act, as Heather Mac Donald has chronicled at length in her recent article for City Journal, “The Corruption of Medicine.”  

For example, she notes that the University of Pennsylvania—ostensibly, one of the top medical schools in the country—has now waived the MCAT for minority UPenn graduates “who score a modest 1300 on the SAT (on a 1600-point scale), maintain a 3.6 GPA in college, and complete two summers of internship at the school.” 

This, Mac Donald concludes, is just the tip of the iceberg: “Expect a growing number of medical schools to forgo the MCATs, in the hope of shutting down the test entirely.” 

Indeed. We should also expect more states to award “merit” scholarships to average students, more universities to go “test optional,” and more law schools to stop requiring the LSAT. 

After all, in the war between equity and merit, the former currently has the upper hand—and it cannot tolerate its antithesis, which exposes equity for the sham that it is. Anything that smacks of merit—that suggests one student might actually be superior to another—must be eliminated, starting with standardized entrance exams. 

The losers in this conflict will be, first, those students who were falsely rewarded with acceptances and scholarships they did not earn; and second, the students who actually earned those rewards but were passed over so institutions could meet their equity goals. 

But the biggest loser will be society itself, as less qualified and less capable equity admits ultimately become equity hires. 

Aren’t you looking forward to trusting your life to a doctor who got into medical school so the institution could brag about how “equitable” it is, not because he or she demonstrated exceptional ability?  


Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.