It’s time to put away the talk of meritocracy and our insistence that poor kids, Black kids, disabled kids, “try harder.”
“I am shocked- shocked- to find that gambling is going on in here!” is the legendary Casablanca line delivered by Claude Rains as French Police Captain Renault. Over the years this has become the go-to quote when people — especially elites — express shock about something that everybody else seemed to know all about. And so it was on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 that America “discovered” that its higher education system was rigged (!), that its proclaimed system of social mobility was rigged (!), that its economy was rigged (!). Yes, we are “shocked — shocked!” The New York Times front page headlined six-six different stories about the indictments of rich parents and their co-conspirators in a college admissions “scam.”
Hey folks, if you didn’t know that college admissions — in particular admissions to ‘elite’ colleges — was already a complete scam, you must have been somewhere far away for a very long time. “At Harvard, 33.6 percent of legacy applicants gained admission between 2010 and 2015, compared to 5.9 percent of those with no parental ties to the college. At Princeton, legacies over the past five years were four times more likely to be admitted than applicants in general,” wrote Bryan Walsh — a Princeton alumni and sometimes admission interviewer — in a December Medium post. ‘“If you look at the credentials of Harvard alumni and alumnae sons and daughters, they are better candidates on average,” William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard, said in a 2011 interview. Even if that is true, it doesn’t explain why applications from legacies, many of whom grew up with educational and economic advantages, should receive an additional boost that students from the general pool don’t. In the case of what looks like a tie between two similar applicants, the legacy often gets the nod — a “tip,” as Harvard puts it.”
In November of last year, Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic, that Harvard’s admissions office was, “serving two masters. One is the god of rich things, who demands a reactionary embrace of wealth and privilege, including the czarist notion that you can inherit Harvard the way you can inherit hemophilia or a winter palace. This is the logic of “legacy admissions” — a rare instance of a morally unpalatable fact retaining its precise name. The Harvard god of rich things also favors the children of tremendous wealth, and of people who are so important that even mighty Harvard wants to have them in its sphere of influence. All of these students — born reaching for silver teething rings, likely educated at rigorous private schools and thus “able to do the work” — will be treated with special care in the admissions office, and many will get in, some despite being below profile.” The “other master,” she wrote, “is an avenging angel on a radical mission: to transform Harvard College — of all places! — into a utopian society, an egalitarian gathering of young people of all backgrounds, including the poor, the homeless, those who will be the first in their family to attend college.” But, we all know which master is winning.
When my child was first applying for college, I will admit that I paid for his plane fare to audition at Ithaca College. I paid for whatever application fees were involved. I paid for SAT tests. That’s probably all I could afford at that moment, so I did what I could. There were no college visits, no test prep, no tutors — and I doubt he would have let me touch any essay he was writing. He was accepted, from his senior year, as a music student at four schools — one he hadn’t applied to. He’s a brilliant guy. But let me admit the obvious, we were broke but I still, I managed to buy him a piano, violins, a great trumpet. That’s privileged. I worked with computers, I gave him computers to play with. All that comes from privilege — white privilege, male privilege, middle class privilege in the form of siblings who could help when things were desperate. White male privilege in that it is easier for me to get hired than an equivalent African-American or Latino.
Natasha Warikoo on MarketWatch writes that, “while only one-third of American adults have a bachelor’s degree, a review of Ivy League universities’ published data reveals that about 85% of [their] students have a parent with a bachelor’s degree.” So chalk up another privilege for my offspring, though I had only earned a BA three years earlier, I had one. That’s huge. He had spent lots of time on a college campus, he had heard college stories. At that time I was coaching high school soccer and realized that only a third of the team had ever been on a college campus. That’s a huge limiter. So we went.
Let’s be clear. These are the privileges that get you into Michigan State, or Grand Valley State, or Louisiana State, or Florida State. None of those count as elites in our terminology. I think all offer the possibility of great educations, all offer faculty equally as talented as those at the Ivies — both the real ones and the public ones. But they do not punch your ticket to Wall Street or publication.
The “elites” are a different story. The elites base their importance on elitism, obviously. They need tons of people to apply, so they can reject 95%-96%. That raises their US News scores. Thus, from a marketing point of view, the elites are not really about educating anyone, they are about not-educating as many people as possible.
“Today almost everyone seems to assume that the critical moment in young people’s lives is finding out which colleges have accepted them. Winning admission to an elite school is imagined to be a golden passport to success; for bright students, failing to do so is seen as a major life setback. As a result, the fixation on getting into a super-selective college or university has never been greater,” writes Gregg Easterbrook in Brookings. And this fixation is based in a very clear understanding by the American middle and upper classes, that this is no meritocracy, rather it is an autocracy of wealth — a wealth preservation system — that might have a back door, or even a side door — doors that offer proximity to wealth, to the court as it may be, and thus a route to at least perpetuation of their current status.
“What is more, traditional measures of merit are so closely tied to familial wealth that it is easy to argue that these metrics are instead capturing a family’s financial standing rather than a student’s academic ability. Extensive research on college access provides clear evidence — college choices available to students are not equal when they come from disadvantaged families. The lack of class stratification that was once a point of pride has diminished, and America continues to face a “stratification of higher education opportunities” (McDonough 1997, 1). The factors contributing to this stratification are complex, relating to socioeconomic status, a student’s secondary school experiences, and student as well as family attitudes and expectations (Hearn 1984; Hossler 2004; McDonough 1997; 2004; Park & Hossler 2015; Thomas, Alexander & Eckland 1979).” — Serna and Woulfe 2017, Social Reproduction and College Access: Current Evidence, Context, and Potential Alternatives
On workingmom.com a woman writes, “my husband and I discussed the feasibility of allocating some of our discretionary income for college tours over the summer. (And make no mistake, she did not want to go, vociferously exclaimed how college tours would be a torturous waste of time and money.) Nevertheless…I persisted. However, given her reluctance, we decided to try to at least make college touring more like fun for her.” Discretionary income. Now there’s the phrase of privilege. I obviously had some, but not much. Most American families have none. According to studies, 78% of US families cannot afford to miss a single paycheck. College tours? Tutors? Lacrosse camps? Rowing trainers? Any club sport with costs… are all out of reach. So are tests by psychologists for learning or behavior disabilities, when the school won’t test, or won’t update a diagnosis.
Why is this important to the rest of us? Because we must be honest with our kids. Telling them that if they just work harder… well, it’s just bulls — -. Sorry, but it's true. Occasionally people get ahead, but its so absurdly rare.
This does not suggest hopelessness. Rather, it suggests changing strategies. We can’t keep hoping the elites will let us in — like British colonials. They won’t. See the beginning of the film Ghandi if you’d like, or the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Likewise we need to reject the Ivies, reject the elite schools, and find alternative paths through other universities or maybe not using universities at all. In the 1850s Michigan and then Pennsylvania began to challenge the elite universities of the day by constructing what would become — via the Morrill Act and the Lincoln Administration — “Land Grant Colleges.”
“That all moneys derived from the sale of the lands aforesaid by the States to which the lands are apportioned, and from the sales of land scrip hereinbefore provided for, shall be invested in stocks of the United States, or of the States, or some other safe stocks, yielding not less than five per centum upon the par value of said stocks; and that the moneys so invested shall constitute a perpetual fund, the capital of which shall remain forever undiminished, (except so far as may be provided in section fifth of this act,) and the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated, by each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
The Land Grants became a different kind of university. In many ways, most remain so. They brought a different definition of academic success to different kinds of students. Opportunity was expanded at these original “maker schools,” and economic success was expanded as well.
More than a century and a half has passed since the original Morrill Act, and perhaps we need a new one, a space for learning and upward mobility that works for the next 150 years.
This might be the time — I say to our Democratic Presidential Candidates — to strike. As New York will finally get taxation on multi-million dollar second homes because of one news story, perhaps we can get an alternate path to success for our kids, riding on the back of these scandals. We could tax those elites’ mega endowments, and give it a start. Right @AOC?
- Ira Socol