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Coronavirus will amplify colleges’ shortcomings: "The Merit Myth" Author

Co-Author of “The Merit Myth: How our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America” Jeff Strohl joins Yahoo Finance’s Aarthi Swaminathan and Akiko Fujita to break down how colleges can change to prevent the social stratification of their students.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about universities right now, though. So much of university life, higher education has been disrupted over the last two months as a result of the COVID-related closures. But our next guest says this has highlighted the number of ways colleges have failed their students and have contributed to social stratification in the US.

I want to bring in Jeff Strohl. He is the co-author of "The Merit Myth-- How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America." We've also got Aarthi Swaminathan, who is a reporter who covers higher education for us.

Jeff, I want to begin with you. The Merit Myth here-- you know, you have rightly pointed out that even before all of this began in terms of the pandemic, there were questions with the Varsity Blues case, whether the rich were the ones who had the access to higher education. There has been a lot of scrutiny on this education model. How much of what we've seen over the last two months, you think, will really tip that balance to create changes in these models?

JEFF STROHL: Woof. That's a very good question. I think I'll have to polish my crystal ball to give you a good answer on that. I think we're in the midst of a lot of chaos, and people are trying to figure out what's going to happen. The residential campuses are under pressure of revenue to get people back into campus. Don't forget, they rent out their dorm rooms.

And so then we're having this massive experiment with online learning with no evaluation. So nobody knows who's doing a good job. So people are going to be hitting the fall trying to decide, should they go back to a selective institution and is it worth the money? And the decisions those people make are going to be the trigger that enables some type of change in how we deliver education and who it benefits.

So it's a little early to figure this out. But I do believe about 60% of the residential campuses will have onsite classes. So that will mean some of the old model will persist. But when people look at Harvard versus their local community college, paying $2,000 versus $50,000, it's going to be hard to justify. So I suspect the selective institutions will be definitely losing some share.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: So talking about selective admissions, I mean, some schools have resorted to giving out free parking. They're really trying their best to boost enrollment. So could this mean that these elite institutions are going to loosen some of their selectivity? Or do you think that it's going to be not as much as, say, public colleges or other types of colleges?

JEFF STROHL: Well, I think the highly selective institutions-- maybe the top 90, top 200-- probably are going to have to try to keep their brand. They cannot give a discounting on at least the sticker price or they lose sort of credibility of their value. So people will need to maintain the belief that a $50,000-a-year education is worth $50,000, and they're going to have a lot of varied comparison points. My son did well at the community college. Why are you going Harvard? So the fringe elements of parking and things like that won't affect the selectives.

Now, I do see that happening as we go down the chain, where the difference of $2,000 plus child care really makes a difference on your enrollment feature. So I think those extras will play out in the middle tier and downwards, but not at the high level.

AKIKO FUJITA: Jeff, one of the university systems we've heard make some significant changes over the last week is the UC system, which essentially came out and said they will not be using the SAT and ACT. There's been questions about bias on that front, whether it hurts minority groups as well.

Is this the kind of change that you think leads other universities to follow? Because it seems pretty difficult for the UC system to act alone and say, we're going to create our own system, own testing when there are so many other universities that students are going to apply to.

JEFF STROHL: Yeah, that's a very interesting thing that happened in California, because the task force study actually demonstrated that the SAT in California that benefited low-income and minority groups on access across the school system. So it's kind of surprising that they got rid of it. I suspect it's a delay.

I mean, the university system as a whole benefits by a standardized exam. And there is-- we have to think, what after an SAT? What will these schools do? And it's not clear that they have a good replacement that will stand as scrutiny of being standardizable. And then you fall into some of the legal problems with holistic admissions, when there's the sense that they have a race bias behind them one way or the other. So I suspect the California case will be a two-year phenomenon.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: So you know, in the book you refer to higher education as different-- it's seen as a private commodity by Republicans and seen differently by the Democrats. I mean, now you have so many millions of people unemployed, and some might consider going back to college. Could you see less polarization? I'm just curious how you see this pandemic affecting that massive divide.

JEFF STROHL: That's a very good question. I don't know how it's going-- I mean, the selective institutions are the tail that wags the dog. They used to say if Harvard sneezes, everyone else gets the cold.

And I believe that the current pandemic and the high levels of unemployment are going to be resolved through primarily community colleges and open access four-year institutions that have the capacity. The selective institutions are a nonplayer in the game when we think that their stock and trade, their brand is a capacity constraint.

They don't get where they are because they let people in. They get where they are because they reject people. And so they don't have a motivating factor to let in 40 million unemployed. And of course, we're not going to get that many people through school. But we're going to need to use education to help workers whose jobs disappear make a transition. The community colleges are best equipped for those shorter-term workforce-oriented education and training programs than are the selectives.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: And just one last question on international students. I mean, the administration is thinking of slapping more restrictions. And that could harm this very lucrative pool, I suppose, of applicants. How does that affect the elite institutions?

JEFF STROHL: Oh, that one is hitting them right in the pocketbook. So the selective institutions, as well as state flagships, et cetera-- which are usually considered selectives-- they always have to play a balancing act between full-book students, who are people paying full tuition, and those getting some type of meritage or scholarships.

If you remove foreign international students from that mix, you're going to put a lot more pressure on your revenue model internal, which could mean less access for disadvantaged groups. And most of the evidence suggests that disadvantaged groups get a huge benefit like going to a selective institution, where an affluent white student could go to almost any school and end up with the same result.

So the disadvantaged really benefit by selectivity. So I'd hate to see us lose what little ground we have made in getting disadvantaged students into the selective institutions.

AKIKO FUJITA: OK, Jeff Strohl there, the author of "The Merit Myth," joining us on his latest insights on the university system. And our thanks to Aarti Swaminathan for joining as well.