Conall Boyle on university admittance: (2) what merit?

Selecting school entrants by IQ and no other criterion is a good example of a meritocratic system.

Conall Boyle, Lotteries for Education

Conall Boyle sees admitting students to universities based on standardized test scores as being a meritocratic policy. This is so, according to Boyle, since standardized test scores are a good (indeed, the only) predictor of probability of graduation. There seems to be an obvious gap here: it is far from clear why high probability of graduation can be considered “merit”. Boyle rejects “good works” (such as doing volunteer work for good causes), for example, as being “false merit”, because it is not a predictor of probability of graduation. This seems like an unusual use of the term “merit” – a more suitable term perhaps is “potential” or “promise”.

Even then, we are obviously dealing with “promise” of a rather peculiar nature: “promise to graduate”. Boyle sees such promise-based policy as being justified by considerations of efficiency: there is a limited number of slots at the university, the public has an interest to have as many as possible of those slots turn into graduates rather than turn into dropouts. But, again, there is an obvious gap: producing graduates cannot be a good by itself since the university could easily produce more graduates (or fewer graduates) by changing the graduation requirements. The real objective of a university education is something different. Admittedly, an examination of what exactly is that objective would be a rather complicated and potentially controversial task. However, without undertaking this task it would be rather difficult to support the claim that the promise of good grades provides utility for society.

One might be tempted to claim that the professors who write the university curriculum and who grade the students make sure that the successful students are the ones who will “serve the public” as graduates. But Boyle tells us that those same professors are unable even to predict who will be a successful student – how will they be able to address the much more complex and ambiguous question of who is likely to serve the public well? Even if the assessment powers of the professors were much more formidable than Boyle would have us believe, it seems inevitable that the worldview of those professors would be determined by their special education and status so that their criteria for “serving the public” would be quite different from those of most members of society.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that the entire idea that university admittance policy needs to be designed or justified on the basis of optimizing benefit for society by producing a certain number of well qualified graduates is rather unconventional. A different point of view (particularly common, maybe, among those who score well on standardized test) would be that high scores entitle the scorers to the sought after university slots as a matter of a natural right, much in the same way that the fastest runner in a regional competition is entitled to a slot at the Olympics. Thus, no service to society needs to be made or to be used as an ultimate justification. This may seem like an arbitrary prize (and a self-serving view), but then so are many other “natural rights”.

I also suspect that some people would assert that university admittance should be run along strict business principles – the same basis the Boyle himself offhandedly assumes should dictate the allocation of parking permits on university campuses:

Because of shortage of car parking at Harvard, the space is rationed. Students who win university parking spaces [through a lottery] pay between $90 and $135 per month, far less than they would pay for off-street parking in the City of Cambridge, Mass. […] The merits of providing subsidised car parking to students is somewhat difficult to comprehend.

One might also ask, then, why a university should subsidize academic education rather than sell it to the highest bidder. Dominant economic theory would assert that the same economic rules that apply to parking should apply to academic education, just as they apply to the allocation of any other resource – from toothpicks to high quality medical care. Merit, they would say, is another name for money. Slots in academic institutions are valuable and should be priced to reflect that value. If fact, Boyle reports (p. 122-123) that such a proposal was made as an “amusing hypothetical” by Robert Klitgaard in a 1985 paper, but, again, I suspect there would be those who would see this as more of a normative plan than a thought experiment, and in fact this is already happening, at least to some extent, in quite a few private universities.

The conclusion, it seems to me, is that admittance based on high scores in standardized tests is neither obviously just nor obviously efficient. Thus, with this alternative no longer having the status of the natural choice, the field of investigation is satisfactorily desolate – it is no longer inhabited by presumptuous squatters. The search for a good university admittance policy can start at square one: a first principles examination of the considerations for designing a the policy may reveal the potential of a lottery-based mechanism.

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10 Responses

  1. Incisive comment again! Before tackling the ‘merit’ question I’d like say why I find the Car-parking space lottery at Harvard so objectionable:

    It’s about distribution of (society’s) goods. Firstly, given a reasonably well-funtioning market, then as Milton Friedman extolled “let customers be free to choose.” So, raise parking space charges to equate supply and demand — and that should apply to Faculty as well. (For mal-functioning markets, .e.g. financial services, fix the monopolistic and rent-seeking elements. That will squeeze out the supernormal profits).

    Secondly, if there is common-wealth to distribute, then is ought to go equally to everyone. The Alaska state dividend is a great example. (More on this in an article by Karl Widerquist, on p 8 of the Newsletter which can be found at:

    http://www.citizensincome.org/

    Declaration of interest: I’ve been involved in basic income far longer than lottery-distribution)

    Thirdly, if it’s common-wealth to be distributed, but because of indivisiblity equal amounts for all are impossible, then consider lottery allocation.

    Returning to car-parking at Harvard, failure to charge full market prices deprives the university of revenue and discourages environmentally friendly cycling. One has to construe very complex excuses for NOT charging market prices. [I examine possible reasons in relation to the bizarre US university lottery for student housing.]

    More generally I would oppose giving away natural resources such as oil leases by lottery. Commercial organisation should pay their way, not be subsidised from the public purse.

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  2. You can go straight to that piece about the Alaskan Permanent Fund at

    http://www.citizensincome.org/resources/newsletter%20issue%202%202011.shtml#ReviewEssay

    Difficult to think of Alaska and Governor Palin as socially progressive, but they’ve done it!

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  3. It sounds way too strong to me to say that allocating university admissions with an eye to social utility is “unconventional.” I’d say it’s more accurate to say that people don’t often disentangle the forward-looking and backward-looking sides of the concept of merit. The forward-looking side says allocate the good in a way that will produce the most utility. The backward-looking side says allocate the good to those who have earned it. The two sides get connected if you believe that 1) social utility will be maximized if we admit candidates with certain qualifications, and 2) students who obtain the requisite qualifications can be said to have earned them. I don’t want to suggest that this is a knock-down argument; one could certain ask whether, for example, diversity in certain critical professions (medicine and law enforcement, for example) increases social utility, and therefore would provide an alternative source of merit. But it’s hardly an unorthodox story.

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  4. > given a reasonably well-functioning market, then as Milton Friedman extolled “let customers be free to choose.”

    What do you mean by “reasonably well-functioning market”?

    With different “customers” possessing different amounts of money, this is a very odd justification. There is probably much less variation between people in the preference for parking than in the availability of funds. Thus, there is no reason to assume that bidding would result in allocating the parking spaces to those who value them the most. Instead it will simply allocate the parking spaces to the rich. How is that a good way to distribute society’s goods?

    > failure to charge full market prices deprives the university of revenue

    If the university needs revenue, then the state can simply tax the rich. I see no reason to bribe the rich with parking spaces at the expense of other students in order to finance the university.

    > discourages environmentally friendly cycling

    I don’t see how this has anything to do with bidding-vs.-lottery. As long as the number of parking spots is given, the number of car trips will be the same, no matter how you distribute the spots.

    > One has to construe very complex excuses for NOT charging market prices.

    I disagree. In fact, I think the opposite is true.

    > Difficult to think of Alaska and Governor Palin as socially progressive, but they’ve done it!

    It would be interesting to see whether Palin would defend the dividend in public (and risk being named a socialist) or repudiate it (and risk the wrath of Alaskans).

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  5. > The forward-looking side says allocate the good in a way that will produce the most utility. The backward-looking side says allocate the good to those who have earned it.

    I don’t think I hear people making the “forward-looking” argument. There is of course the expectation that a university graduate would earn a living with their acquired skill so that in that sense it would “produce utility” to themselves as well as to the one who pays them. But anything beyond those immediate actors is generally seen, I believe, as a by-product (an externality, as the economists are fond of saying) rather than as an object of policy.

    As I wrote, the implicit analogy being used – in the case of university admittance but also in many other cases of differential treatment – is to winning a prize at a sports competition. The fastest runner wins the prize as a matter of natural right, not because their winning serves any higher purpose. The “invisible hand” story is invented (by the few who bother with such matters) as a post-hoc rationalization.

    I am not sure how we can empirically decide which is the conventional view, but, again, I simply cannot recall the “forward-looking” argument being made, and personally as a university student I am pretty sure I never thought of myself as having to justify the fact that I got a slot at the university by it being beneficial for society.

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  6. Well, without something like the forward-looking view, I don’t see how you justify having universities at all. We have marathon races, with winner and losers, purely for recreational value. They’re entertainment, and that’s it. Are universities there for no higher reason? If they have a higher reason, then it’s obvious that who you admit should somehow relate to that higher reason. I’d say this is implicit in most discussions of university admissions, and not spelled out, but anyone who didn’t think this way at all would be missing the point in a rather fundamental way.

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  7. First, in case this was not clear, I will emphasize that I do accept the idea that admittance policies of universities, like everything else in a democratic society, need to be justified based on the benefits they provide the members of the society. That is, I accept what I see as the unconventional view. Therefore, I do not see the alternative view as justified or even coherent, but simply as common.

    As for that common view: dominant economic view would assert that the state has no business running universities. Universities should be there if they provide mutual benefits to the students (the customers) and to the university’s private owners. Many of those who do argue for state-run universities would, I think, simply assert that education is “a right” and should therefore be provided even to those who cannot afford it – as long as they show they are worthy of it – and thus should be subsidized by the state.

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  8. ‘Merit’ like ‘Fairness’ and ‘Justice’ are often called in aid to support arguments. My problem is turning concepts into operational definitions. So often these things are assumed to be understood, or worse used in an ad hoc fashion, meaning different things to suit the advocacy. Even the highly esteemed Rawls’s book on the Theory of Justice in his first chapter entitled ‘Justice as Fairness’ evades defining either concept!

    ‘Merit’ as a criterion for uni-entry seems to be universally accepted. But what form of Merit and even more crucially, how is it measured? Here the advocates fall silent, or in the case of Yoram cast a veil of confusion over the proceedings.

    So I will re-iterate two factors related to ‘Merit’ and uni-entry: First: it should be relevant to the selection/rejection process in play; and Second: it should be reliably measurable. All else is smoke-screen and babble.

    If anyone has validated knowledge that, say, performance of good works positively affects their uni experience or their subsequent performance as an X (where X is the course being followed) then I’ll sign up for that. Of course some valid metric of Good Works will have to be engineered to distinguish between otherwise equal candidates, otherwise it is useless.

    Perhaps if you follow through your arguments and try to operationalise them like this, you will understand why for practical purposes in real-life situations entry scores are the only valid metric. Lots of interesting discussions on alternatives can take place, which may entertain, but don’t amount to diddly-squat.

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  9. > Here the advocates fall silent, or in the case of Yoram cast a veil of confusion over the proceedings.

    I don’t believe that I am casting a veil of confusion, as much as pointing out that the veil of confusion is already there. Realizing that the confusion exists is an important step toward resolving it. I would also point out that the confusion in our case is not simply a matter of objective difficulty or sloppy thinking – it is sown deliberately by those who benefit from its existence.

    > Perhaps if you follow through your arguments and try to operationalise them like this, you will understand why for practical purposes in real-life situations entry scores are the only valid metric.

    What do you mean by “metric”? Metric for what?

    The third and last part of this article will present my arguments for avoiding an elitist admittance policy. While I point out that lotteries are an improvement over best-score admittance, I think ultimately the best policy is to provide university slots for all those who are interested.

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  10. […] This is the third and last part of this article. The first two parts are 1 and 2. […]

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