LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E15: Meritocracy and Selective College Admissions

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In this episode, Diane and Michael work to dispel the myths around selective college admissions, dissect whether they are, in fact, meritocratic, and architect what they see as a better path forward.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane. How are you?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, it’s April. Do you know what that means to school people like me? Basically, we are about to start the next school year. At this time of the year, the clock speeds up so much, it becomes a slippery slope to the end of the year and all of that activity that the end of the year brings, which is rapidly followed by summer, where people just try to grab a little bit of rest, catch their breath and strategically plan for the next year, which will be on us before we know it.

Horn: Well, Diane coming off of spring break on my end, where we finally got to have that vacation that we had planned originally for 2020, when COVID stepped right in there and canceled that. I hear you. And it certainly does feel like we’re in the home stretch of a lot of things right now. Unless of course, schools had taken our recommendation from season one of this podcast, Diane and adopted a balanced school calendar that goes year round. But I digress, don’t I?

Tavenner: Well, not really. You actually hit right on the heart of why we are doing this podcast and we have not given up hope around things like that and what still might be possible. And while this unfolded in a way that neither of us could have expected, we are now in season three, we’re in the third school year disrupted by the pandemic. I do think that we continue to be really hopeful about the possibilities and opportunities that are before us. And so we are taking these few last episodes to really go super deep. That’s what we wanted to do this year. Be nuanced, be deep around some critical conversations that keep coming up over and over, and over again. And I’m excited about the one we’re going to have today.

Horn: Yeah. So am I. I’ve been looking forward to this and we’ve been coming at this season, as you said, with a place of curiosity. And this is episode three effectively of our deep dive with curiosity around the topic of meritocracy. For those listening last time we did on exam schools and the time before that really an overview of the debates and contours of how those debates around meritocracy impact education. And this week, we want to talk about selective college admissions. And what sparked this for me, Diane was your observation in that first episode we did on the deep dive on meritocracy. And I’m going to quote you here. You said, “Like many others, I’ve deeply internalized the basic idea that your hard work and skills should be rewarded. And that systems that don’t incentivize quality work and hard work end up being pretty demoralizing and defeating.”

So stepping out of the quote from you, I think this notion is one that pervades the common conversation around college in this country. And it fuels a disproportionate impact on K12 education that selective colleges anyway wield. And similar to the exam schools that we covered in our last episode, selective college admissions provoke all sorts of opinions, Diane, from some clamoring for more affirmative action and more diverse classes, to others clamoring for the barring of the use of race in admissions. That question, by the way, is coming before the Supreme Court again. And then there’s people advocating for using a lottery to determine admission, to other people’s big question which is, why can’t selective colleges just grow much faster and expand the number of students they serve?

But I guess what I think selective colleges and the conversation I just laid out, really do call into question, each of those positions calls into question, what do we mean by merit? Because when someone says they are or are not in favor of a particular change to admissions because people who are less deserving will or won’t get in, quote unquote, for example, what does that even mean? Like from the lawsuit against admissions at Harvard to the Varsity Blues controversy, where people, parents specifically went to unbelievable lengths to get their kids into certain colleges. I don’t think this is a dumb or a simple question to ask.

Tavenner: Oh, no, far from it Michael. It might be quite a few other things, but not dumb or simple. And so, well, all I can say is buckle in because now we’re really getting into it. And you asked this great question, what do we mean by merit? And so let’s just start by contrasting this question of merit at the point of entry to college, which let’s say is around 18 or so for most folks. And after 13 years of formal education at that moment, and even just, let’s say to eighth grade, which is going to be around the age of 13 and less education. And I’m starting here with these two different points in ties because this matters, because if you remember the four elements of meritocratic societies that I described a few weeks ago, one of those four elements is that the society tries to secure a quality of opportunity by providing education for all.

And so what seems pretty darn clear to me is that 13 years into that societal offering of education, there is no way that colleges are selecting based on, quote, “pure natural talent.” And while I don’t think anyone is so bold to try to make a direct claim that they’re doing that, I do think that you see language all over these selective admissions processes that talk about how our classes is made up of, quote, “some of the most promising students” or things like that, lovely language like that. That really does try to sway people into thinking that they have somehow used merit based criteria that hasn’t been influenced or corrupted by what I would call extreme variation in the 13 years of prep. And so if you remember, I was really struck when there was a lot of agreement among all of the critics of merit that I had been reading, because it seemed like those points where there was alignment were most likely to be true.

And one point that had pretty tight alignment among those authors was this idea that selective colleges are most certainly not using a universal based measure of merit in knowledge, skill, or natural talent, and then basically stack ranking everyone and accepting the top performers. This is just simply not happening in any way, shape or form in selective colleges. And that was pretty universally agreed upon by those folks. And so it seems like rather as it turns out that college degrees from selective schools are quite frankly so valuable in our society that parents are doing what seems, I guess, sort of human and natural, which is literally everything in their power, as you just said, to help their child get into one of these schools.

This includes using significant amounts of their financial resources, time, social capital, and in a full range of ways, also nepotism, patronage, and even bribery in some cases to get their kids in. And this is mutually beneficial. It’s not just all on the parents because the selective colleges really benefit tremendously from enrolling students of families with wealth, power and status. And so this is a symbiotic relationship. And essentially all of the authors argue, and I’m convinced by these arguments, that the current system is in fact, not a meritocracy and that there are a number of negative consequences for our society and individuals as a result.

Horn: Super profound set of statements that I think if we’re successful in this conversation, Diane, we’re going to come back to where you just ended, because I think it sort of lays a groundwork, both of what’s problematic, but also a potential solution and pathway forward. But before we sort of jump to the end, let me perhaps peel back just some of the layers of the onion for our audience on how many students we’re even talking about when we talk about selective colleges. Because similar to the conversation around exam schools and the numbers they serve, I do think some perspective is important. And so there are nearly 4,000 accredited colleges in the country that offer degrees. Of these, north of around 2,500 are four-year colleges. So of those schools, fewer than 100 colleges are highly selective, which means, so the definition of that is that they accept fewer than 25% of applicants. So I just want to repeat that because-

Tavenner: Please do Michael, because this is not what people think.

Horn: Headline, right?

Tavenner: Yeah.

Horn: Not at all. Based on the media narrative, we think that colleges are all super selective and it’s competitive, and so forth. There are fewer than 100 colleges that are highly selective. That means that roughly 2.5% of schools are highly selective Diane. Now, nearly on the other hand, 500, four year colleges accept more than 75% of applicants. And then there are a lot of open admissions colleges that basically accept anyone who graduates high school.

Tavenner: Michael, these stats are so, so critical. And just the fact that we both said, oh, these are going to be surprising and shocking to people and they don’t know it because the narrative is that college writ large is so hard to get into and selective. I think that tells you the influence we’re going to get into other areas of influence, but it’s just, they’re so critical. I’m so glad you’re sharing them. And they take us back to our last episode on selective high schools where we made the exact same point. There are very few of them serving very few students, and yet they somehow managed to have an impact on literally every single student’s experience. And I would argue the same is true here at least in a few ways and probably many, many more. So let me just unpack a couple of those. The first being that because our country now has, and is obsessed with ranking our colleges, and quite frankly, students and families across the country use those rankings to guide where they want to apply and where they want to go to school.

And more importantly, to judge themselves on how good they are based on if they get accepted to top schools and how many they get accepted to. We’ve got this very skewed measuring stick now that we use. And you combine that with the misplaced belief that people actually get into these schools based upon their pure merit or their pure natural talent. Well, two things happen. First, the people who get in essentially drink their own Kool-Aid and they believe that they truly are meritorious of their selection. And everyone else at the same time believes they are as well, those people must be deserving and they believe that they are not, which has all sorts of implications.

Second, colleges are — and maybe, let me just say quickly, the implications there, why in the world would a country want all of its emerging talent, the vast majority of its 18-year-olds to believe that they aren’t good or worthy, or acceptable? I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a good strategy. Second, colleges are obsessed with these rankings because they are really impactful on their bottom line. And so they literally engineer everything they are doing to rise in the rankings. And I’m probably not going to be terribly popular after this podcast. But here’s the reality, the things they do to rise in the rankings aren’t the things that actually benefit students. And so, for example, they purposely recruit students who they have no intention of accepting, just so they can reject more students to increase their selectivity. And this is a byproduct of this ranking system and how you gain it. And it’s standard enrollment management, if you will now, which is a practice, that because selectivity is one of the criteria on ranking colleges, this is what they do.

Michael, this practice literally infuriates me. One quick anecdote on it, after my son took the SATs, started getting all those postcards, marketing materials from colleges. That’s a whole other conversation. We’re going to leave that one for the moment. But one day the mail came in and there was a very cute, very cute, postcard, that was really well designed. It had these adorable puppies on the front of it. Yeah, they were so cute that’s why I noticed it. And a tagline that was something like, going to our school is as fun as playing with a litter of adorable puppies or something. Now, I’m not going to tell you which school this was, but you and I both would know, this is not the experience of going to this university. Not that it’s bad what you get there, but it’s not like playing with puppies.

It is incredibly rigorous, incredibly studious. It is not like this. And so why in the world would they send this postcard? Well, it turns out that particular school had been falling in the rankings compared to their peers. And one of the big factors was their selectivity index, because they just simply weren’t getting enough kids to apply. Why? Because this was a school that kids actually knew and understood and so only the ones who would fit there were applying there. It’s the way the system’s supposed to work, but then we have to go in and mess it up in order to rise in the rankings. It’s just, oh my gosh, it makes me so frustrated. It’s so messed up.

Horn: Totally messed up.

Tavenner: I’ll just give you one other example. And that is how colleges, and this one is really crazy. How colleges manipulate the start dates of many of their students so they can engineer the demographics of their incoming students to benefit their rankings. And so what do I mean by that? Well, the people who created the rankings purportedly wanted it to incentivize colleges to admit socioeconomically and racially diverse classes of students. And so schools with positive metrics in this direction are rewarded in the rankings. And selective schools are really beholden to admitting at the same time students whose families are alums, and honestly most often can also pay for the full experience and don’t require…

Horn: That’s a big one.

Tavenner: Financially. Yeah. And of course these folks are disproportionately wealthy and white because of, well, I guess the history of our country and structural advantages and disadvantages for different groups of folks. And so what a school will do is accept students in the spring semester or as transfers after a semester, or a year later from these types of families, even when these students don’t have the scores or the grade that are nearly as high, that are valued in the rankings and when they’re not economically or racially diverse. And these students who enroll later, it turns out, don’t count in the demographics of the incoming class.

And so the university preserves its status in the rankings. All the materials you read about their incoming class and how amazing they are and how diverse they are, don’t include this whole other set of students that end up coming in later. And so, one way to spot this Michael, is by looking at the size of an admitted freshman class, and then looking at the size of the graduating class. And what is typical in education is a graduating class is the same size, if you did an amazing job as an institution, or slightly smaller due to attrition. But in the case of, I’ll just say one of my alma maters, I discovered that the graduating class was over 50% larger than the incoming class, because they’re doing exactly what I’m describing.

Horn: That’s really striking Diane. And I just want to dig more into the point you’re making around, are they really using, quote unquote, “merit” or at least a consistent definition of merit in their decisions. And it is sort of a tricky topic, because some of the public colleges anyway, that have a selective process are somewhat formulaic, meaning that there’s at least a consistent definition to a degree. We can unpack that in a moment. But some of the public colleges that have a selective process, for example, Texas, if you’re in the top 10% of your high school class as ranked by GPA, you’re guaranteed admission to all state funded universities with the exception of the flagship university, UT Austin, which basically caps that guarantee at the moment for those who are in the top 6% of their class. Other states do something similar. But in the Ivy League, for example, the process is anything but formulaic.

This is what’s known as, quote unquote, “holistic admissions.” They’re looking at each individual, but also how they shape a class for a variety of attributes. And here they’re looking, yes, at your GPA, your test scores, your extracurricular activities, your essays, and the like, and here’s where I think we see a lot of flash points Diane, in the narrative. And what’s interesting right now is many of these schools have gone test optional in the wake of COVID. They aren’t requiring the SAT or ACT anymore.

And some people right now are cheerleading this because they say these tests are biased and hurt low income or underrepresented minorities. But what’s interesting, when you look at how these tests honestly get used, and as Jeff Selingo wrote in his book, Who Gets In & Why, they’re honestly most often used to help students from those backgrounds where an admissions officer might not know the school from which they’re applying and not have a sense of what the grades in that person’s transcript mean, and the rigor of their courses. I’m opening up a bunch of things for you to go deeper on in a moment.

But the test basically just provides another data point to say, hey, this person’s GPA is legit and you should consider them. They deserve another glance. They tend to disproportionately, actually, help low income minority students. Whereas someone who came from say, well, Whitman High School in Bethesda, where I went to school, let’s call it what it is, that’s a feeder school. The admissions officers know what the grades mean. Frankly, the SAT, not going to really help or hurt you once you’re above a certain baseline threshold. And so what a lot of the studies are showing that’s interesting I think, is that if you look past these test scores in the current system that we have today, and we’re going to push back big time on this in a moment, but in the current system, you would then default to essays and portfolios of work, and recommendations.

And those are going to disproportionately help the wealthier students because they have means and supports, and social capital, and so forth. So I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I guess I want to put all that out there because for these selective schools, again, it’s a tiny fraction of the overall whole. What is the definition of merit? So like when someone gets upset that they didn’t get in, because someone from a different background with lower SATs got in, I kind of shrug and say, “So?” Because they aren’t looking just to select a class with the highest SATs. I mean, Harvard could fill several classes just with students with perfect SATs, but they consciously decide not to nor do they want people with just the highest grades.

Sometimes they want that academically solid student who’s an amazing violinist from North Dakota, and some years they don’t. And from my perspective, I guess this means that, Diane, these are really just clubs that have some baseline criteria, but then they’re really just trying to select who are their members. Who gets to be part of and pay for, in many cases, the privileges and relationships, and social, and cultural capital that this club confers. And I’m not defending it but I guess what I’m saying is, this goes to the top of the conversation. I’m just, I’m not sure that what merit really means when we’re having the conversation at this level.

Tavenner: Michael, it’s these moments I’m glad we do a podcast and not a video cast, because as you know my face really is quite expressive.

Horn: Well, you’re not tearing out your hair, so we’re OK right now.

Tavenner: There is a lot there that you just laid out. And so let me just start with a call back to the meritocracy books and the theories that we are using as a touchstone for these conversations. And interestingly, one of the few actual recommendations coming from the authors is that institutions of higher ed so vary — that they should transparently and clearly state the skills, knowledge, achievements, whatever they are that a student must have in order to meet those sort of baseline entrance requirements that you were just sort of referencing. And their view is that if these things are fully transparent and clear to anyone and everyone, then students can actually work, and people who support students can work to help them meet that bar or not. And essentially it wouldn’t be mysterious if one was qualified for entry or not. And everyone could sort of get signaled as, yep, you qualified or you didn’t.

And then they proposed that at that moment, you just take a lottery of all the qualified applicants, those who made the bar and randomly select your class. And they argue that this is meritocracy and they suggest it mitigates some of the downsides that I discussed earlier of those getting in believing they’re better than and those not believing and thinking they’re less than. And then they also argue that it promotes hard work and a feeling of fairness, and a whole bunch of positive outcomes that we actually see the reverse of right now. And I will say Michael, coming from the charter movement, this is an appealing idea in many ways and for the reasons I’ve named. And I’m not terribly compelled by the arguments — I should just clarify, we have rotaries in the charter movement and we don’t even have baseline entrance requirements. 

Horn: Right. So it feels like a natural step.

Tavenner: Yeah. So it feels super natural. But additionally, I’m not terribly compelled by the selective college arguments that they are doing an amazing job of curating classes of students that are truly diverse and have violinists from North Dakota and whatever, and unique in their talents. Given the little insight that I have into admissions and certainly you and others probably have a lot more, I just don’t believe that narrative or at least not enough to think that their human process could do any better than statistics in selecting a diverse class from a qualified pool. And there are extraordinary downsides to what becomes an incredibly biased and influenced process of admissions by human selection without clear qualification criteria that one can actually know that they’ve met or not. And I would say, an equally critical point here is just how few selective schools there are, as you’ve made the point.

I’m just going to make it again. And just how much influence they have on every single child in K-12. And so I think it’s worth spending just a minute here because I suspect some people hear me say that and think, what is she talking about? How does the Harvard admissions impact an 11th grader who isn’t even considering a highly selective college? Which by the way, is the vast majority of 11th graders in America. And so let’s just start with the reality that for those who do want to get into Harvard, everything is about comparisons to their peers. That’s the whole admission scheme. So one of the first things selective schools look at is the strength of program. And you reference this up above Michael, did the applicant take all or more of the hardest classes offered in their school in comparison to all of the other students in their school?

And how does this impact the 11th grader who doesn’t care about going to Harvard? Well, the high school starts offering courses and developing schedules to benefit that future Harvard applicant. They can’t help it. They get sucked into it. And selection criteria are put in place to make sure those courses are viewed as rigorous enough for the selection to Harvard. And so before you know it, and often with the best intent, the entire schedule of high school revolves around supporting those who want to go to the selective information’s office often by excluding those who aren’t going there and not allowing for some of that dabbling in certain places.

This is where we get really hardened tracks and things like that. So that’s one place. The next obvious place is then comparing the students to their peers. And these in another way, which is selective colleges care deeply and want to know how their applicants stand up academically against their peers. And so they’ve historically used SATs, ATC scores, but in the absence of those, they’ve always used GPAs as well. Also, people might not know if you haven’t written a million letters of rec like I have, that they literally ask the recommender how high this student ranks overall in your lifetime of experience of working with students. And they give you the option of top 1%, top 5%, top 10%, or top 20%.

Horn: Well, that’s easy. I just want a teacher who’s taught very few students so I’ll be in the top 1%.

Tavenner: Well, maybe. But you see what the mindset kicks into gear, think about the impact of that on the teacher who’s writing these letters year after year, and they really care about kids. They also, I find teachers to be quite ethical here and they really try to do their best honest job on these letters of rec. And what does it do to how they think about and look at their students, knowing that they’re going to be writing these letters? And there’s just a whole bunch of kind of messed up mindset stuff that starts to sink in there, if you’re constantly thinking about comparing and stack ranking kids. And then I’ll just go one more. We could do this all day. But there is also just the idea of grades. And we’ve talked about grades before. We’re both kind of shocked that people don’t question grades more than they actually do.

So let’s do it again here. Why does this system of A to F grades persist? We know it does nothing to help develop students or give useful feedback for growth. So why do we keep it? And for this, the reality is for these select processes, they’re the ones who benefit from it. There are far better and more sophisticated systems of assessment and actual feedback that serve every single student. But if we put those in place, how would these colleges be able to get reports that rank each member of the class? Our good friend Todd Rose likes to say that the system tells every student to be the same as everyone only better on these narrow sets of things. And that’s exactly what our grading system seeks to do. And if you aren’t at the very top of the system, it’s not about you, your learning, your development. I hate to say it this way, but you are simply a block that your peers are standing on to prove that they are the best so that they can win that golden ticket into the highly selective institution.

Horn: So I think that’s exactly right, Diane. And it goes exactly where I want to go to next. And it’s a twist that you may or may not have seen coming, but it’s sort of this sense of, the authors you all read, conclude that we’re not in a meritocracy right now. They sort of propose a narrowing to make the measures explicit and then have this lottery system. I would like to take a little bit of a different tact. So here’s our classic third way maneuver Diane. So I would first, I would like to see these schools expand their classes, but I’ll also acknowledge that that’s not as easy as it sounds and it costs a ton of money to do because of how they’re structured. And Rick Levin, the former president of Yale, he was recently on the Future U Podcast with me and Jeff Selingo, it aired March 8th, for those that want to check it out.

And he was pretty clear, there are no economies of scale at these institutions because of how they’re structured. And so adding more students just takes more money. Just to give you an example, adding 200 students to a class at Yale, so 800 students to the whole school, costs literally half a billion dollars. That’s insane, there’s a capital investment. But I want to make a different point because Jeff and I also actually happened to host the Future U Podcast at Northeastern University. And that’s coming out just at the same time, basically as this podcast. And in it, the president, Joseph Aoun made the point that colleges today are diversified but not differentiated. And I thought that was really well said, diversified, but not differentiated. So what does that mean Diane? Yes. We have liberal arts schools and selective research universities, and regional publics and community colleges, and all the rest, but they’re all kind of basically cut from the same cloth.

They’re like that school you described earlier that actually had its own brand. It was differentiated and then it wanted to be like everyone else by sending out postcards with puppies. And outside the rare, I’m going to make some metaphors, bird like Babson or RISD, where you kind of know they stand for entrepreneurship or the arts and design, they’re all kind of playing the same game and not differentiating. And Diana, as you know, we’ve had this Carnegie classification system for a long time, which basically shoehorns institutions into different categories, historically speaking, based on these academic attributes. That’s not by intention of the Carnegie foundation, but it’s sort of been turned into a pecking order of institutions in a really perverse way.

Tavenner: Yeah. And Michael, just a quick interruption here. You’re right. I didn’t see this coming and so I’m excited. But as you know, I chair the board for the Carnegie Foundation and I’m just so excited. Part of the reason that we have hope is cool stuff like this keeps happening, that we just made an announcement a few weeks ago, that we’re partnering with the American Council on Education to redesign those classifications, so that they incentivize the purpose and the mission, and the focus of higher ed in a democratic society. The type of stuff we’ve been talking about. And so just a really cool structural change I think is coming there that I hope will be helpful.

Horn: Yeah. And so I guess playing off of that, what I’m hoping we really need is, if we want to move to a clearer, more transparent meritocratic system that, but it’s also positive sum. So it has room for everyone to discover their unique purpose and develop into who they are as a unique individual. I think we need to see institutions truly differentiate. And in that world, I think you’d want a system where students were not all running and competing to have the highest SAT scores and get even clear a bit minimum bar of SAT scores and GPA, and this other narrow set of measures just to get into that lottery for the selective colleges or whatever else. But I’d really like to see students have the ability through projects and rich performance assessments to showcase their own diversity and who they are, and who they’re becoming so that they could then match to institutions that would be good fits for them.

Which is basically an impossible question today to figure out because until a few years ago, every single college was requiring GPA and SAT. Do we really believe that SAT is a great measure for that student that wants to go to RISD? I don’t think we do. And to your point though, I do think that there’s some hopeful things on the horizon that may start to change that equation. And I’ll just list two and then I’m curious your take. One is the mastery transcript consortium. This started out of basically elite private schools. It started to expand to public schools, and it’s basically the notion of replacing the grade based transcript with a transcript based on what you’ve mastered and being able to see the portfolio of projects and work you’ve actually done.

And my hope Diane, is that that would start to enable someone, I’ll take me as an example, to say, hey, I’m super passionate about these areas and these are the things that I like to do. And therefore, my portfolio of projects will tilt toward, I’m going to make it up, but arts and writing, for example. And yours may be tilts in a very different direction and so forth. And so then a college can look at me and say, “We’re really looking for people who are STEM folks and have differentiated them. That’s not who Michael is. That’s not a judgment on who he is as a human being or his character or anything else. It’s just not the right fit.” And another school can come and say like, “Oh, Michael, you really line up well here for what we’re doing.” And by the way, I can find a college that lines up well for me, and we can have this match making process.

And I also recently interviewed the CEO of Youth Science, which basically offers assessments for people as young as middle school around basically, what are they really, where are their strengths and characteristics that are stable over time to basically widen the prism on what careers you would be a good fit for. But to start that conversation much earlier in people’s lives, not to narrow and say, “Oh, Michael, you’re going to be this.”

But to instead say like, “Hey, you are really good at this set of things that does this, but by the way, did you know that these other five things are also areas that might be interesting?” Because the reality is, you know Diane, is interests change a lot throughout a person’s life, but having some sense of, gee, this is really where you would fit well, is really useful for navigation. And again, it would allow me to look at the, in theory, a differentiated set of colleges to really find matches that would meet the sorts of things that I bring to the table, and that are stable about me. So I’m hopeful that we can move to this place that’s meritocratic, but in a different way, I think from what the authors that you read their solutions sort of describe and imply.

Tavenner: Michael, I love when we move into the space where we both want to be, which is into the vision of what is possible and a really thoughtful creative vision. And as you know, one of my biggest critiques of the books on meritocracy were that they made these amazing cases and then had these pretty disappointing solutions or proposals at the end. And so I agree with you. I felt deeply unsatisfied by their proposals, and I love this one. This is exactly where we should be going. This is what schools can look like.

And when I imagine a system or a network, however you want to call higher education, whatever you want to call it in America, I really believe in and support the idea that we can have those 4,000 accredited institutions that you talked about at the start, offering, every single one of them offering an impactful experience that is differentiated from their peers. Maybe not all 4,000 have to be different, but there’s a really wide variety. Because humans are unique and we have jagged profiles of our strengths and our interests, and thus the contributions we can and want to make to the world are different. And isn’t that the world that we want to live in, one that is rich and brings all of those pieces together?

Horn: And by the way, we all get better when we, I mean, strategic value for institutions and individuals comes when you differentiate, not when you all try to look the same.

Tavenner: Exactly. And as you have so clearly laid out, when we have a system that is so incredibly narrow in its focus, so that we are driving all of our children to define themselves by this very narrow set of scores and grades, and how they did against their peers. Well, we’re operating a system that honestly, if I were asked to design a system of education for a country that wanted to kill its democracy in society, I would design our system. I mean, that is, it’s just the design is so mismatched for what we say that we want and who I think we are. And so I think rather we need a system where every child finds a good fit, as you have said, a right fit for their next step out of high school that is a credible and all. And maybe even push a little further, because you talked about finding a right fit college, which I think everyone should have an option to find. But I’m super open to other credible pathways to the future that enable them to live financially secure and purposeful lives.

And I don’t know that it has to be college. And I do think that it’s totally possible. And in this moment, I think we all need to recognize that that’s possible and drive to it. And I would just say, honestly, I could care less about the top 100 selective colleges, because they’ll get all in the mix here and people will defend them. And let’s just ignore them for a little while and focus on the rest. Famous last words here, but if I were a college president of one of the other 3,900 schools, I would be putting all of my energy into figuring out what purpose my school could bring to the life of students that was differentiated, as you said, and unique and which students would uniquely benefit from that purpose. And how could I make sure that I was getting 100% right fit matches.

That should be the metric there, that we’ve got a right fit match across the board. That we’re creating these really amazing opportunities to truly prepare and launch young adults into adulthood when they leave our institutions. And in my view, and clearly yours as well, that is the pathway forward. It’s future facing. It’s not backward looking and it is so exciting and so possible, and it’s really connected to a topic I’m thinking more and more about, and really want to get your reaction to, Michael. So I’m going to be a little bit short and cryptic here. But let’s just say, as a person who’s been actively part of the college-for-all movement that began around the 1980s, I’m thinking it might be time for a pivot. And so I’m hoping we can talk about that on our next episode.

Horn: Ooh, I want to hear that. So let’s put a bookmark. We’re going to go there next, but this has been a long, but I think worthwhile episode to pull apart a lot of different strands. So maybe I’ll turn to you first Diane, what are you learning from and outside of this conversation right now?

Tavenner: Yeah. Well, Michael, as I’ve shared several times, my son’s in college and this semester he is in Berlin, which is a fascinating place to be right now. And so I almost can’t believe it’s true, similar to your break, we are heading to visit him. And when I visit another country, I always try to read both history about the place of literature from it. And so folks who’ve been paying attention to my titles will recognize a few that make sense from the nonfiction side based on Going to Germany. But now I’m shifting to a novel and it’s called Visitation. It’s by a German author, Jenny Erpenbeck, and the novel’s described as, quote, “profound clarity and precise grief.” So if you’re like me, you’re into that stuff, it sounds amazing. I’m really looking forward to diving in.

Horn: I can’t wait to hear about how that is. And you’re going to have to report back on your experience in Germany as well Diane. It’s interesting right now, I’ll just conclude with sort of a funny one, because you triggered this when you said we’re in April now and we’re sort of moving in, last time was spring. In New England we get a little bit longer ski season it turns out. And unlike you, I didn’t grow up in the backyard of ski mountains so I picked up skiing as an adult, really only in the last few years. So I’ve been reading a lot of books about skiing, Diane, and that’s where my head has been at. And it’s more coming out of winter, but it’s more like, I like that as a grown up, we keep learning and we keep growing and isn’t that a cool thing. And that would be my wish for all of our listeners as well. And so with that, I’ll just say thank you for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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