The following op-ed by HLS Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, “America’s Best Colleges: Merit by the Numbers” appeared in the August 5, 2009, edition of Forbes. Guinier and Sturm are the co-authors of “Who’s Qualified: A New Democracy Forum on the Future of Affirmative Action” (Beacon Press, 2001).

Professor Lani Guinier In its recent commencement issue, an Ivy League college newspaper displayed a snapshot of the Class of 2009 “by the numbers.” Although the students had by then been at the college for four years, all of the relevant “numbers” were based on a profile of the class at the time of enrollment. Prominently featured were the 157 children of alumni; the 9.7% of applicants who were admitted; and, last but not least, the median SAT math and verbal scores–740 and 750, respectively–of the class.

Amazingly, all the “merits” of the graduating seniors involved attributes that predated the students’ arrival on campus. Totally missing from the portrait was the “merit” that the Class of 2009 developed as a result of the four years they had spent at the school. Nor was any mention made of the contributions they were poised to make. Apparently, the defining qualities of merit–and what was most valued in the students–were the attributes they already had as incoming freshmen.

Selective colleges and universities, like this one, act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate. Trapped by a rankings culture that ties their reputation to admissions inputs, they also define themselves by whom they exclude. Schools that attract a lot of applicants, and then reject 92.3% of them, are held in the highest esteem.

But this process valorizes a uniform set of test-taking skills that produce results no better at predicting college performance than family wealth. In fact, Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, found that the socio-economic status of a high school is a better predictor of what kind of grades its students will earn their first year in college than the individual SAT scores of its students. In effect, the testocracy reproduces privilege and stratifies the higher-education system by race and class. Individuals who perform well on high-stakes tests are awarded admission to college or law school as a prize for performance on a test that best predicts not aptitude, but parental income and education. This inequality effect of the SAT undermines a range of public values, from providing access to college independent of wealth and privilege to developing problem-solving capabilities.

The preoccupation with backwards-looking statistical criteria also severs the tie between admissions and mission. The testing regime deflects the college’s responsibility away from, for example, producing a diverse and dynamic learning environment that actually builds capacity among the students to become the leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the next generation. Reputation based on numerical ranking assumes greater importance than reputation based on the development of innovative ideas and publicly spirited graduates. The primary function of admission becomes status and prestige enhancement for the institution itself and for those who enroll.

Beyond that, the pre-eminent role of high-stakes tests also negatively affects student engagement and learning. The standardized and time-limited nature of the SAT and the ACT fixate student attention on the mastery of test-taking techniques, rather than on developing qualities such as creativity, ability to collaborate, critical thinking and drive. It misleads, by reinforcing the view that ability is fixed when in fact intelligence is both malleable and incremental.

A static view of intelligence has been widely debunked; it undermines intellectual risk-taking. It is also self-fulfilling. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who hold a “fixed” theory of intelligence expend enormous energy worrying about how smart they are–they become preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and are less likely to engage in the excitement of learning. In contrast, people who believe that one’s capacity to learn is “expandable” are more willing to challenge themselves.

An openness to learning from others is crucial in today’s complex environment. People who tackle the world’s problems with the benefit of different perspectives are less likely to get stuck in the same dead ends. As Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has demonstrated, diverse groups have greater potential to generate effective and innovative solutions to tough problems.

What if colleges and universities selected students who would be most transformed by their educational experience? What if colleges learned from the approach of the Posse Foundation, which brings students from urban schools into college in a supportive cohort? Posse invites students to think about their collective leadership potential and encourages a commitment to tackling social issues as part of the selection process. It then cultivates that potential and commitment after students arrive at college. As a result, the selection process itself becomes a learning environment that sets the tone for what will be valued in the institution. It builds support systems, like peer groups, that enable participants to learn from each other and succeed. The selection process becomes the first, rather than the most important, part of their college education.

Some colleges have moved away from the testocracy. For example, close to 800 colleges have decreased or eliminated reliance on high-stakes tests as the way to rank and sort students. However, the testing and ranking diehards, intent on maintaining their gate-keeping role, are holding back and even penalizing administrators who take these measures. The presidents of Reed College and Sarah Lawrence College, for example, both report experiencing forms of retribution for refusing to cooperate with the “ranking roulette.”

In this environment, moving away from merit by the numbers takes guts. And moving toward mission-driven merit will require a posse of another sort–a posse of innovators willing to change the admissions paradigm. After all, colleges and universities do not fulfill their mission by boasting about the accolades of incoming freshman but rather by educating, inspiring and transforming those who enroll into the citizens who graduate.