Is Education Attainment a Privilege or an Accomplishment?

I have a new article at Pacific Standard about why people are motivated to believe in meritocracy. (Go read it. I promise it’s better than what’s about to follow.) One thing I don’t talk about is the degree to which certain accomplishments are viewed as indicative of meritocracy. The big example of this is education. Is educational attainment a result of the privileges into which you were born, or is it a result of hard work?

One some level, education seems like a matter of luck. Fancy private schools, personal tutors, and college-educated parents surely create inequality of opportunity. But educational attainment also involves some legitimate amount of hard work. Clearly people’s views about education will fall somewhere along the spectrum between “Pure Meritocracy” and “Total Randomness,” but the question is, what’s likely to influence where those views fall?

A clever new study led by Gerald Eisenkopf attempts to find a basic answer. The study combines a series of experimental manipulations with the dictator game in order to reveal how certain people (in this case, German college students) perceive educational advantages.

Here’s how the study was set up: Two partners answered a series of trivia questions. Each partner received a small amount of money based on their individual performance, while a much larger sum was given to the two partners based on the pair’s combined performance. The pair then had to divide up the sum using the ultimatum game (one person proposes a certain split, and if it’s accepted by their partner, that’s how the money is split up, but if it’s rejected, they each get nothing.)

The key manipulation was that before answering the questions participants were given an “education” period. During this time they could review certain questions that might be on the test, but the conditions varied in ways that were designed to mimic the educational inequities in most seemingly meritocratic societies. In the “skill” condition, only 5% of the practice questions appeared on the actual test, thereby making the education period relatively useless. The result was that performance was mostly based on each person’s true trivia ability. In the “luck” treatment, each person in the pair could learn 50% of the answers, and so a person’s performance had little to do with their actual level of knowledge. Finally, in the “education” condition, one partner was able to learn 95% of the available answers, while the other partner only saw 5% of the answers. There were two types of education conditions. In one, participants had 15 minutes to go through the sample questions, plenty of time to learn all the answers. In the other education condition, participants had only four minutes, and therefore effort and skill played a larger role in determining the advantage provided by access to more answers.

When the partners were later forced to divvy up their winnings in the ultimatum game, the results revealed that educational opportunities influenced how people viewed merit. As expected, high achievers in the “skill” condition were allotted the most money by both high and low-achievers. However, there was divergence between the two groups when one partner was randomly given a better “education.” In these cases those who received a quality education and scored higher believed they were entitled to a larger share. Conversely, those who were not granted a quality education tended to propose splitting up the winnings in an egalitarian manner that was reminiscent of the proposed splits when performance was based on luck. In other words, the high-achievers who had studied hard to learn the answers believed they deserved more, while the low-achievers who didn’t have the same privileges as their partners felt their partners were less deserving.

While not earth-shattering, the results provide some confirmation for the half-baked perception of meritocracy that you might expect: People are more likely to view their own experiences as worthy of merit. You remember your hard work, but not your privilege.

One remaining question is whether there are other things that influence how people view access to educational opportunities. For example, what if your cousin was granted access to education? Would you view his accomplishments more like the way you would view your own (hard work, lots of merit), or more like the way you would view that of a stranger (all privilege, no merit.) And is it possible that changes in the structure of our education system alter the degree to which people see education as consistent with meritocracy? For example, would a noticeable increase or decrease in standardized testing cause people to view educational attainment as more or less dependent on hard work? There’s a lot riding on the way people view educational attainment, and so the answers to these questions could ultimately prove to be important.
Eisenkopf, G., Fischbacher, U., & Follmi-Heusi, F. (2013). Unequal opportunities and distributive justice Journal of Economic Behavior & Organizaiton DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2013.07.011

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