PROF JENKINS: Turns out 'merit' has, well, merit

Could it be that standardized tests really are good indicators of future success?

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.

During and immediately after the covid shutdowns, a large number of colleges and universities around the country elected to go “test optional,” meaning they would not—temporarily, at least—require SAT or ACT scores for admission.

Though partly a pragmatic acknowledgment that students in many parts of the country were prevented from gathering indoors to take a college admissions test, this move was also billed as an act of compassion for young people presumably traumatized by the pandemic.

Not that it was a completely new development. Even before the pandemic, a relative handful of campuses had already stopped requiring test scores. And the propaganda campaign buttressing that position had certainly been ramping up for years, with multiple studies purportedly showing that such tests are poor indicators of student success, not to mention—of course—racially biased.

But the test-optional trend clearly accelerated beginning in 2020, as many institutions no doubt took advantage of the opportunity to make a change they had been wanting to make for some time—not letting a good crisis go to waste, in the infamous words of Obama capo Rahm Emanuel. That’s evident from the fact that many never went back to requiring test scores.

[RELATED: PROF JENKINS: The ‘sex and gender are different’ canard]

Until now. As Campus Reform reported just recently, several “elite,” “selective” institutions—including Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth—have suddenly reversed course and will once again begin requiring SAT or ACT scores for admission. More are sure to follow.

Why the about-face? Could it be that standardized tests really are good indicators of future success, and without them—relying on less accurate metrics like high school GPA and essay responses—schools had been admitting students who, it turned out, couldn’t cut it academically?

Well, yes. That much is obvious. But there’s more to the story, because there was always more to the “test optional” movement than just coming up with “innovative strategies” for admitting students. As I wrote for Campus Reform in 2022, that movement was always, at heart, an attack on our merit-based system.

For any organization with a fundamentally Marxist worldview, like the modern American university, merit is anathema. Indeed, the current watchword for such organizations is “equity,” which—as I have also written for Campus Reform—is the antithesis of merit.

Merit as a concept posits that people earn their success in life primarily through hard work, discipline, and natural ability. “Equity” argues that, because some seem to get a raw deal due to the circumstances of their birth—that is, they’re “oppressed”—society must atone for this “injustice” by giving those people what they haven’t earned. Then everyone will be “equal.”

Except it doesn’t usually work out that way. Putting people in positions for which they aren’t actually qualified often has disastrous consequences, for themselves as well as others, as we’ve seen recently in the Claudine Gay case at Harvard and a dozen other similar examples.

Not that the merit system is perfect. Like any other system—free markets, for example—it can be gamed, abused, and corrupted. Indeed, merit is basically the free market system applied to human capital.

Just as people are free to buy the best car they can afford, incentivizing automakers to build better, more affordable cars, so universities should be free to admit the best students they can, thus incentivizing prospective applicants to strive for excellence.  

[RELATED: PROF JENKINS: Go to college, anyway]

And just like free markets, merit is the worst possible system—except for all the other systems, which consistently have far worse outcomes.

No wonder so many colleges and universities are bringing back standardized testing. All those bogus studies notwithstanding, the ACT and SAT are in fact excellent predictors of student success. They do a good job of measuring not only what students have learned in high school but also their native intelligence and—as the “SAT” acronym suggests—their scholastic aptitude.

Ultimately, if colleges want to attract students capable of succeeding in the classroom and maturing into competent graduates, they should probably take ability and intelligence into account.

You might even say that the idea has merit.

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