The Merit Myth

How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America

An eye-opening and timely look at how colleges drive the very inequalities they are meant to remedy, complete with a call—and a vision—for change

“The system is worse than broken. It’s fixed.”
—Anthony P. Carnevale, Washington Post op-ed on the college admissions scandal

Colleges fiercely defend America’s higher education system, arguing that it rewards bright kids who have worked hard. But it doesn’t actually work this way. As the recent bribery scandal demonstrates, social inequalities and colleges’ pursuit of wealth and prestige stack the deck in favor of the children of privilege. For education scholar and critic Anthony P. Carnevale, it’s clear that colleges are not the places of aspiration and equal opportunity they should (and claim to) be.

The Merit Myth delves deeply into the rampant dysfunction of higher education today and critiques a system that pays lip service to social mobility and meritocracy, while offering little of either. Through policies that exacerbate inequality, including generously funding so-called merit-based aid rather than expanding opportunity for those who need it most, U.S. universities—the presumed pathway to a better financial future—are woefully (and in some cases criminally) complicit in reproducing racial and class privilege across generations.

This timely and incisive book argues for unrigging the game by dramatically reducing the weight of the SAT/ACT; measuring colleges by their outcomes, not their inputs; designing affirmative action plans that honor the relationship between race and class; and making 14 the new 12—guaranteeing every American a public K–14 education. The Merit Myth shows the way to higher education becoming the beacon of opportunity it was intended to be.


“Rooted in history, packed with detail, The Merit Myth exposes with passion and precision the deep structural inequities that stain American higher education today. A powerful and convincing case that we can and must do better.”
—Paul Tough, author of The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us
“A powerful wake-up call to the widening gap between America’s educational haves and have-nots, and [a counter to] the laissez-faire presumption that business-as-usual will fulfill higher education’s responsibilities as the prime lever to social mobility in a knowledge economy.”
—Nancy Cantor, chancellor, Rutgers University-Newark
“A strong argument for educational reform at every level in order to make schooling truly equitable.”
Kirkus Reviews
The Merit Myth offers compelling policy proposals to address an increasingly fractured society, including a tax on wealthy colleges’ endowments, the end of legacy admissions and for all Americans to complete a minimum of two years of college.”
Times Literary Supplement
“Does college matter? Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl answer the question definitively—hell yes!—with unassailable data, compelling stories, and smart reasoning. The Merit Myth shows that in an era where fairness and economic justice are being thwarted, the best path to upward mobility is through high-quality postsecondary learning.”
—Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO, Lumina Foundation
“Those interested in inequities in the admissions practices of elite colleges will find this a considered examination.”
Library Journal
The Merit Myth . . . meticulously detail[s] the many ways U.S. colleges favor the rich.”
The Hechinger Report

Goodreads Reviews