The Myth of Meritocracy

Billing students sticker prices for online courses is only one of the dangerous ways in which nonprofit colleges paint themselves as businesses first, educators second.

Julia Knox
Age of Awareness
6 min readSep 18, 2020


Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Many schools are preaching about the importance of diversity while the average family income of an American college student remains at just over $150K/year (The New York Times, 2017). Significant fees lumped on top of college tuition creates an exceptional burden for low-income college students, many of whom utilize scholarships and grants to cover their tuition, but not extraneous charges. At Columbia University, payment plans are only available for fees less than $1,000. Systemic socioeconomic disparities will not be resolved by a few high-profile scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving students. Students’ mental health and academic performance will not be improved by constant harassment from student financial services. As we consider the integrated model of the self, we must consider our entire environments. The little fees add up, adding to student stress, shame, and eventually, contributing to the risk of repeating cycles of poverty. Do we want this process to be associated with what it means to get an education in America?

Today, I am very grateful to be in Columbia’s tuition exemption program as a part-time graduate student. When I was younger, I attended college on a Pell Grant, and I thought schools like Columbia weren’t for “people like me”, or people from rural, working-class backgrounds. In my present situation, because I am part-time, and a full-time employee, I was surprised to get a bill for over $700 in “fees”, due almost immediately. It reminded me of being in college, which is the first time I realized I could be seen as “poor”. Tuition is only one aspect of unaffordability. Universities charge unexpected fees that aren’t scholarship, grant, or payment plan eligible. Little costs add up, isolating students from their peers, fostering shame, and impacting academic performance. The New Yorker even published a story that illuminates how crippling educational debt is now a defining factor of the middle-class, let alone the lower and working classes (Hsu, 2019).

In school, I remember crying when I missed breakfast at the dining hall. Missing a meal meant I would be starving before an important class. I received emails threatening that I would need to move out of my dorm room even when I communicated that my funding was still in the process of coming through. There was no understanding or flexibility from the administration. It was as if they lived in a vacuum that wasn’t aware of our societal and economic realities. Even the language they utilized felt cold and unkind, and I felt even worse.

This reality is often juxtaposed with the argument that we can use options such as subsidized loans. First of all, many students will need a cosigner, and many low-income students do not have a relative with adequate credit to qualify. If they are able to qualify, and while this can be used to obtain a degree, in the long run, it perpetuates economic inequality. A low-income student is already in a vulnerable position and may have less guidance in the post-college world. This argument presupposes that there is little or no impact on making substantial student loan payments as a new graduate.

Jasu Hu for POLITICO

When we speak in derogatory ways about millennials living in their “parents basements”, I hope we will consider that many of these people are hard-working young people with crushing student loan debt who lack the privilege of parental support. Being first-generation or otherwise disadvantaged students can also impact decreased financial literacy when planning for college, let alone getting out of debt. It is not acceptable that we push low-income students to apply for college as a path out of poverty when we have not built the infrastructure to support them.

Photo by David Emrich on Unsplash

It is not acceptable that the average income of an American student’s parents is over $150,000/year (The New York Times , 2017). In a highly engaging visual that demonstrates economic mobility of students from various economic backgrounds, the New York Times stated: “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” (The New York Times, 2017.)

My household income, when enrolling in college, was not only less than half of this, it was less than a third. I was the recipient of a Pell Grant, intended for students from low-income families, which is capped at $6, 345 in 2020 (Federal Pell Grants). This is less than 20% of the average cost of yearly tuition at a 4-year institution (Big Future), a cost that does not include housing, meals, textbooks, or other expenses. We are seeing the profoundly tragic effects of having a single economic class, the majority of whom are from generations of wealth and privilege, consolidate areas of leadership. This is not indicative of our country’s demographics and thus is not in our collective interest.

We need to identify and support working class students as they move through academia, and that doesn’t just mean helping them get into college. As Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend explain in Politico, “Even the most highly qualified working-class students receive lower GPAs and drop out more often than their middle- and upper-class peers.” (Politico, 2019.) The journalists describe a sense of alienation faced by these students as they encounter a majority driven by the desire for individual achievement. Working-class students often have a more collective approach, and are more inclined to work together, fostering community and collaboration. In courses that are curved, this type of behavior may work against them, if success is measured by their GPA.

We need more retention support, and it needs to include financial planning and advocacy for low-income and marginalized students. It also includes reconsidering which values are infused into the cultural norms of our universities, and whether this is a message we want to keep sending. We have been living by cultural norms that dictate “one for one”, so is it any surprise that we have leaders that do not work for us all?


College Costs: FAQs. College Board: Big Future. Accessed September 18, 2020.

Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at America’s Colleges and Universities. The New York Times. Published January 18, 2017. Accessed September 18, 2020.

Federal Student Aid: A Office of the U.S. Department of Education. Accessed September 18, 2020.

Hsu, Hua. Student Debt is Transforming the American Family. The New Yorker. Published September 2, 2019. Accessed September 18, 2020.

Stephens and Townsend, 2019. The unseen reason that first-generation and low-income students drop out. Politico. Accessed September 18, 2020.



Julia Knox
Age of Awareness

Poet-Hearted Social Scientist. I write, therefore I think. |