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Why college isn’t the answer to social inequality


Here is yet another in an apparently endless series of articles about how to make higher education more of a meritocracy, by making it easier for smart lower-middle, working class, and poor kids to either graduate from college, or graduate from selective colleges (an important distinction that, typically, gets blurred in most versions of the argument, including this one).

This time of year, there’s a lot of optimism in the air about college. As acceptance notices come in, it seems like the smartest, hardest-working young people with the greatest potential are being matched to institutions of higher learning that will prepare them for success and promote a free and open society. We might conclude that colleges are greasing the gears of social mobility, which have slowed as of late. . . .

The colleges make efforts to open up access to low-income students while at the same time culling applications in ways that give an advantage to the very wealthy — from the persistence of legacy admissions to the back door reserved for young athletes who excel in sports that flourish in rarefied communities like lacrosse, squash, rowing and fencing. Admissions officers don’t talk much about “development” admissions, students whose applications are favored in hopes their parents will eventually endow a new stadium or dorm. Increasing numbers of prospective freshmen apply for early decision, which can give the applicant a stronger chance of getting in but closes doors for middle-income students, who often need to make their college choice by comparing financial aid packages. No wonder, then, that in a group of 38 selective colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students came from families in the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Creating a true meritocracy in higher education would require serious, politically daring changes to our housing policies and the tax code, neither of which seems likely in the current climate. Yet people of means (and I include myself here) are complicit in a system that seems unable to stop itself from extending privileges to the privileged. If your late-model car boasts the sticker of a prestigious college in the back window, you are participating in a system that may be good for your child but bad for our country. . .

While visionary leaders are pushing their college and universities to increase the numbers of first-generation college students, comprehensive reforms must come quickly and they must be more visible. Campuses that are overwhelmingly populated by wealthy students amplify the voices that jeer at our higher education system and energize those who seek to destroy it. It would be a tragedy if they succeeded.

While I’m all in favor of making it harder for very rich people to buy admission for their none-too-bright spawn into Harvard etc. (hi Jared), this article makes a bunch of dubious assumptions common to the genre.

The most dubious — so deeply embedded in progressive arguments for producing greater economic diversity among student bodies at selective colleges that it’s usually implicit — is that a more “merit-driven” college admissions process will help bring about more just society in general.

But what does “merit” mean in this context?  Apparently, it means that academically talented and hardworking young people from lower middle class, working class, and poor backgrounds should have just as a much a chance to “succeed” as similarly gifted upper middle class and rich kids.  And “succeed” means “end up near the top of the SES pyramid.”

Now what are the problems with that?

The first is purely practical: the whole point of social and economic privilege is that it can be maintained and replicated.  And while higher education in general, and selective colleges in particular, are about many things, one thing that they are very much about is the maintenance and replication of social and economic privilege.  Saying that going to Harvard or Amherst Berkeley shouldn’t be about replicating privilege is tantamount to saying that Harvard and Amherst  and Berkeley shouldn’t exist, not that their admissions policies should be tweaked in some some egalitarian-regarding way. And to a lesser extent this is true of non-elite colleges as well: the whole point is that enormous sums of money get spent, public and private, to help ensure that some children (and not others) “succeed.”

The response to this is that everybody should go to college so that everybody can “succeed.”  It should be unnecessary to point out why this is idiotic, but apparently it is necessary, so:

The only way the everybody goes to college solution to massive social inequality would work would be if the following conditions obtained:

(1) Having a college degree correlates with higher income because college attendance enhances human capital; and

(2) The reason not everybody is rich or at least middle class is solely because of structural unemployment, i.e., there are an essentially unlimited number of high paying jobs that are going unfilled because college attendance hasn’t enhanced enough human capital to create enough workers capable of filling those jobs.

On the other hand, it may be that:

(1) College is a signaling, social sorting, and networking device; and

(2) Structural unemployment has little to do with the scarcity of high-paying jobs.

If these things are the case, sending everybody to college in order to make everybody at least middle class makes as much sense as issuing everybody Rolex watches, in order to make everybody rich.

The most absurd versions of the college as an egalitarian mechanism argument focus on the admissions policies at Harvard, Amherst etc., as if making highly selective colleges more economically diverse could play a meaningful role in ameliorating elite privilege.  Leaving aside for the moment that, as I say above, the reason these institutions exist at all is to avoid ameliorating elite privilege, this argument is both innumerate and fantastical.

It’s innumerate because only a tiny number of people can go to selective colleges and universities — that’s what it means for them to be selective — and fantastical because elite privilege replicates itself constantly in every facet of life, long before anyone gets to college: indeed that’s what elite privilege is.

Lauren Rivera’s book Pedigree is excellent on this point: the reason elite students get elite jobs is because elite students come from the upper class, and with rare exceptions you have to come from the upper class to get such jobs, because in addition to all the formal educational requirements — which themselves are designed to replicate class privilege — you have to have what employers call “fit” and “polish.”  “Fit” and polish” are what Bourdieu et. al. call “cultural capital,” i.e., you have to know how to talk pretty, which again, means you have to be upper class, or in rare instances be an extremely good mimic of various upper class folkways and fetishes.

And all of this doesn’t even touch on an even more basic problem, which is that the vast majority of people are and always will be mediocre at whatever, because that’s what mediocre means.  The whole framing of the problem of social inequality and social privilege as one in which the exceptional smart and hardworking lower class kid can’t “rise” far or fast enough makes no sense on its face.  Exceptional kids are going to remain the exception rather than the rule — again, by literal definition! — whether or not they get into Harvard or for that matter any college.

Two-thirds of American adults don’t have a college degree: a statistic that has almost nothing to do with “access,” no matter what the Lumina Foundation and the elite bankers currently lusting after a privatized educational loan system may claim.  The large majority of people don’t graduate from college — let alone selective colleges — because college isn’t and indeed can’t be an egalitarian institution.  And arguments that higher education should be more “meritocratic” just end up creating ever-more elaborate justifications for the maintenance of ever-more extreme forms of social inequality.







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