Merit, Access, and Opportunity: A Personal Perspective
Amid growing concern about unequal access and opportunity in education and the economy, it is natural for people to shape their perspective based on their life history. Here I present my perspective based on my own experience and some ideas about policy intervention.
I was born in a low (really low) middle-class family in Israel. My mother never met her father, who was killed by the Turks in the First World War, and my father hardly saw his father, who went to work in South Africa after losing his business, incinerated by hyper-inflation after WW1. When my parents got married in 1945, they rented a room in a dark and cold two-bedroom apartment. By the time I was 3, we controlled both bedrooms. I lived in this apartment for the first 19 years of my life. My family didn’t feel poor because we had food and our neighbors were in the same boat. I went to the neighborhood school on the next street. I loved the comradery of the school, got basic exposure to algebra, science, and history. I also developed a passion for sports, especially basketball (some of the best athletes of Jerusalem graduated from this school – as well as the writer Amos Oz). Fortunately for me, all kids in Israel take a standardized test in the 8th grade for placement into high school, and I did quite well. Out of a class of 40, only 6 or 7 of us went to academic high schools, about 15 to vocational high schools (which are actually quite good), I went to the army, many combined work and study, and some did neither. I was fortunate to be accepted to a very selective high school called Leyada. Many of the kids at this school came from the best neighborhoods, and their parents were government officials or business people. I was underprepared academically and aware of the class barrier (I hardly invited any of my classmates home). The sports skills that I acquired in my neighborhood were a saving grace – I wasn’t a great athlete but the competition was quite weak. On the other hand, the academic competition was fierce, and I worked hard and gained skills that lasted a lifetime. In retrospect, I was fortunate to be selected to this school based on merit. Most of the students met the same entry standards and not all of them came from affluent backgrounds. Actually, about a quarter of the students were boarders who were selected from much poorer backgrounds than mine. Regardless of our diverse backgrounds, almost all of us took advantage of the opportunity.
After high school, I served for about four years in the army, came out intact at 21, and was ready to go. In those days “good students” went to study mathematics and physics in college. Since I knew that I had to work full time, I decided to take economics and statistics, which were supposed to be easier. While getting my economics degree, to make ends meet I worked full-time as a computer programmer. I learned how to become efficient with my time, combining work, study, and a decent social life. I didn’t resent wealthier students who were partying more, because I was the first in my family to own a car, I could afford some indulgences, really enjoyed my demanding and good-paying job. At the same time, I did quite well as a student and two of my more inspiring professors, Uri Regev and Eithan Hochman recommended that I consider a Ph.D. overseas. I decided to give it a go, realizing I could always return to the growing computer industry, and I wanted to explore the world. I knew I need decent recommendations, and most importantly competitive GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores to be accepted to a competitive US university. I applied to about 15 and was accepted to Chicago, Cornell, and several others, including Berkeley Ag Econ. Regev and Hochman were Berkeley alums and sang its praise, the weather was much better than the East Coast, and movies like The Graduate were great advertisements for our campus. All these factors brought me to Berkeley, where another tiny (if warmer) room awaited me, this time in the International House with a stadium (not Bay) view, and I began student life in the USA. My standard of living had declined with the transition, but I was excited and happy. When I had enough of “I-House” food, I ate at cheap Chinese restaurants. I bought a $100 Chevy Impala, driving myself to Yosemite and Monterey and (luckily) returning alive. When school started, I was nervous – no one spoke my dialect of English, referred to by classmates as “Zilbonics”, and the American students seemed more sophisticated and informed. I didn’t want to return without a degree, but the unknown is always frightening. I had never worked as hard as I did in the first six weeks of my first semester, but then I received the results of my midterms and realized that I could watch NBA and get a Ph.D. at the same time. In the end, things worked out well and I have stayed in Berkeley. When I look back, I realized that despite the fact that we were relatively poor, I did still have many factors that helped me succeed educationally. My family was stable, and my parents exposed me to books and emphasized education. Furthermore, my cousins successfully studied abroad and served as good role models. Most importantly, I have had access to excellent, affordable education, where selection was based on merit.
Once I became a faculty member in the same department in which I studied, I became responsible for selecting students. Over the years I’ve served on admission committees of the ARE Ph.D. program and the newer Masters of Development Practice program I founded myself. In both cases, we strive to meet three objectives. First to accept as many high-potential candidates as we can. Especially in the Ph.D. program, we are responsible for producing future leaders in our field who can have impacts on the nation and the world. It is thus our responsibility to identify people that will be able to change the world for the better. Second, we aim to avoid candidates that are unlikely to succeed in the program, frustrating their own aspiration and denying achievement to another deserving candidate. Few things are more painful than informing a candidate that they have failed and must leave the program. Third, we aim for a diverse body of students, not only for fairness but because it can enrich everyone’s learning experience and professional development. We compete with other universities, being mindful of the budget constraints we face as a public institution. Having more resources for financial support allows us to improve the quality of students and the diversity of our program. It troubles me when a great university is not able to accommodate an excellent candidate for affordability reasons, and we often make exceptional efforts to support promising students from modest backgrounds. Our admission decisions are informed along many dimensions. Students provide personal statements on their background and objectives. They help to interpret people’s records and help to identify excellent candidates. Students’ chances significantly improve when they provide an impressive paper. Grades can be difficult to interpret because of differences in grading standards, especially for the global applicant pools we face. Doing well in tough classes is a very good signal. We try to avoid the “letterhead bias,” which gives students from affluent backgrounds a huge edge, reinforcing elitism and exclusion. Our graduates from Montana State have done at least as well as many from the Ivies. Recommendations can also provide advantages for candidates from prestigious schools with famous professors. I try to read between the lines and weight recommendations from individuals who know their students well and care about our program more heavily.
When I came to Berkeley, the vast majority of Economics graduate students and faculty were males of European Background (there were a significant number of Jews, which were integrated mostly after the war). Many students came from well-to-do families – but a significant number came from working-class and farm backgrounds. I was astonished by the paucity of female and nonwhite faculty members. Professor David Blackwell (probably the best teacher I met in my math and stat courses) and Elizabeth Scott, both from Statistics were two exceptions in a universe of white men. Irma Adelman broke the gender barrier in our department and it was sad to learn about the many obstacles she had faced across a long and influential career. Over the years, the number of female students and faculty has gradually increased because of changes in societal attitudes and special opportunity programs. The student body has also become more diverse, especially with international students from emerging Asia. I am quite proud that two of our graduates, Madhu Khanna and Jill McCluskey, have served as president of our professional association (AAEA). While we have had a diverse international student body, our Ph.D. program has hardly any Black or Hispanic students. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste presents shocking evidence of access barriers facing Black Americans, quite consistent with my own observations and readings. Despite sustained prosperity by average aggregate measures, social mobility in the United States is actually declining, and the gap between income and racial groups in access to educational resources continues to grow.
My experiences and learning have brought me to several conclusions. First, the educational system needs to have diverse offerings for multiple constituents. This includes life-long learning providing academic and vocational skills. Second, it is important to provide excellent public educational opportunities at all levels. It is great that Forbes ranks Berkeley as the number 1 university. Third, you cannot avoid testing. It needs to be adjusted to different backgrounds, but it provides crucial information about individuals. Fourth, we must eliminate discrimination in education (and in life). Unfortunately, it still exists. Fifth, we need to invest in financial aid and remediation to overcome educational deficits. I am a strong believer in meritocracy but it has to be based on equitable access. In order to deliver on the promise of freedom of opportunity, we need to invest heavily in education beginning with early childhood, the essential foundation opportunity for people in any society to reach their potential. Only this can fulfill America’s promise and meet the growing challenges facing our nation and the World.