Elite Schools Like Princeton Should Heed Bernanke on Merit

Bright students come from all socio-economic levels.

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Princeton University's Dr. Jeff Nunokawa, left, holds the the school's ceremonial mace as Ben S. Bernanke, Fed chairman, leads the processional out of the Princeton chapel.
Princeton University's Dr. Jeff Nunokawa, left, holds the the school's ceremonial mace as Ben S. Bernanke, Fed chairman, leads the processional out of the Princeton chapel.

When the Chairman of the Federal Reserve announces what interest rates are going to be, markets and politicians listen intently. So when Ben Bernanke argues that graduates of America's elite academic institutions might be less talented than they believe, it is worth listening to him.

On June 3rd, Ben Bernanke gave a commencement address to Princeton University's graduating class. The speech he gave centered on 10 short life lessons. While each of his lessons is interesting in its own right, it was his third piece of advice about how to view America's meritocracy that has prompted the most discussion:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The idea in this comment is not new: Bernanke is hardly the first person to suggest that those who have been successful in life have also been very lucky. What is striking is the venue that Bernanke chose to give these remarks: the Princeton campus.

Princeton is one example of several schools that claim to be the cream of the academic crop while also being overly represented by students from the upper crust of the social and economic distribution. A report from The Century Foundation recently showed how 70 percent of the students in America's most competitive colleges come from the highest socio-economic quintile.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

It's certainly not a case that there aren't academically capable students at lower economic quintiles. As Derek Thompson reports in The Atlantic, 40 percent of the highest achieving students in the entire country come from the lowest socio-economic quintile but they don't even apply to the most selective schools for a variety of factors:

Although a "critical mass" of the country's brightest students tend to live in country's densest and richest in urban areas – New England, New York, southern Florida, coastal California – the poor students who don't apply to selective schools are more likely to be scattered across the country. They aren't surrounded by a network of teachers and college counselors who know what advice to give a top-flight student. They're not part of a legacy and tradition of high-performing students reaching for the best colleges. Instead, they tend to "come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college."

Bernanke's speech may not have had new information, but it has been a welcome wake-up call. America's universities are a critical institution with significant credentialing power. So long as they claim they only want to take the best students, it would be helpful to consider ways to at least be sure that they take students from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds.