The Burden of Privilege: How An Elite Education Can Ruin Opportunity

Elite education opens doors.

That’s the standard story, anyway. Ivy League colleges are expensive and stressful but they’re worth it. They’re worth it because they give our kids the gift of possibility.

But is this true?

And it is possible that an elite education also closes doors?

The Elephant Door

First, let me get the obvious “closed door” out of the way.

I lived in Thailand for a few months last year. My neighbor — a young American in her mid-twenties — was a recent graduate of NYU’s prestigious law program.

She was hired out of grad school to work for a Thai company. Her monthly salary? Less than $1000. Her total debt? Well over $200,000.

Ouch.

Our twenties — the time before we become tied up with family and other obligations — is a time for us to take risks, to innovate, to tinker and to explore.

Entrepreneurship and risk-taking are what drive progress. But, suffocated by the heavy burden of college debt, such risks become impossible.

But that’s not what I’m interested in for this essay.

Rather, I want to look at how an elite education can reduce opportunity for psychological reasons, not material ones.

The Paradox of Privilege

In his bestselling Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, ex-Yale professor William Deresiewicz puts a spin on this “education opens doors” story.

Look at Harvard grads, he says. Before the financial crisis, more than half of grads went into only one of two fields — consulting, or finance:

“The irony, then, is this. Elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, teaching, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged, as a whole, than kids have been for several decades: more concerned about the state of the world and more interested in trying to do something about it. It is true, as well, that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college — a very big “if” — they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, and prestige.

If an elite education opens doors, shouldn’t we see much more diversity in the life paths students choose?

Why do so many of them herd together, like a flock of sheep?

An Arms Race

Deresiewicz argues that, because of how the system works, students are forced — much like a vehicle is forced through a production line — to gather badges for the approval of an admissions committee.

At my high school, one of the top in the US, it was not uncommon for someone to take 5 or more online courses to “boost” one’s GPA above the standard 4.0.

One classmate of mine, who took college courses over the summer in addition to online classes, broke the “county record” with an GPA of 8.9. He was accepted to Harvard.

Most of my peers did this. Yet, we never chose these courses because they were interesting. Rather, we chose them because they were easy — we could skip class, ace the tests, and inflate our GPAs to pad our applications.

Things like leadership, education or community lost their value as things in themselves and instead became means to an end, a fuzzy, poorly-defined end vaguely captured by the word “success.”

“Growing up elite means learning to value yourself in terms of the measures of success that mark your progress into and through the elite: the grades, the scores, the trophies. That is what you’re praised for; that is what you are rewarded for. Your parents brag; your teachers glow; your rivals grit their teeth. Finally, the biggest prize of all, the one that draws a line beneath your adolescence and sums you up for all the world to see: admission to the college of your dreams. Or rather, not finally — because the game, of course, does not end there. College is naturally more of the same. Now the magic terms are GPA, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright, MCAT, Harvard Law, Goldman Sachs. They signify not just your fate, but your identity; not just your identity, but your value. They are who you are, and what you’re worth.”

This kind of farming for gold stars — like a real-world version of Super Mario — shifts students into a state of mind that Deresiewicz calls credentialism.

“The result is what we might refer to as credentialism. The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can’t put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition. (If you want to increase participation in an activity, a Stanford professor told me, make entry to it competitive.)”
Fig 1. Mario (still slightly hungover), upon returning from his two-week, immersive leadership bootcamp in London, England.

Here’s something interesting about credentialism.

What credentialism means is that somebody else is always setting the targets — someone else tells you what is good, meaningful, and worth pursuing in life.

Students get good at jumping through hoops, but they have no say in who sets the hoops or why.

And, suddenly, at the end of four years, they find that all of the hoops disappear.

Then, real life awaits.

All Out of Hoop

Fig 2. A sophisticated diagram of elite education

Deresiewicz argues that, although elite students seem well-adjusted, many of them carry a deep fear of failure:

“So extreme are the admission standards now, so ferocious the competition, that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They have been haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure — often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

This, he says, is why so many students go into finance or consulting: it keeps all the options open:

“…speaking of options, these kids have all been told that theirs are limitless. Once you commit to something, though, that ceases to be true. A former student sent me an essay he wrote, a few years after college, called ‘The Paradox of Potential.’ Yale students, he said, are like stem cells. They can be anything in the world, so they try to delay for as long as possible the moment when they have to become just one thing in particular. Possibility, paradoxically, becomes limitation. ‘My friends and I didn’t run sprinting down a thousand career paths, bound for all corners of the globe,’ he wrote. ‘Instead, we moved cautiously, in groups, plodding down a few well-worn trails so as to ensure that two or four years down the road, we could be stem cells again, still undifferentiated, still brimming with potential.’”

So yes, maybe a degree from Harvard or Yale does make it easier to get the job you want.

But it also true that privilege, for many students, makes them too afraid to pursue paths that they may have chosen otherwise.

Can you imagine the pressure one would get from family and friends if you gave up your Harvard degree to work a “third-rate” job? Unbearable.

Haunted by Ambition

I have a promise with my girlfriend that, once a week, we both take a day off together. That day, I am not allowed to do any work.

On such a day, we might take a hike in the mountains near our apartment house or hold a picnic at the beach.

But, the whole while — while we’re eating, joking, enjoying each other’s company— there’s a voice that whispers in my head. Hey, are you really okay with not getting any work done? Other people are working harder than you right now, you know? Why not cut this off early and get back to writing?

I shake my head and wave the voice away.

But it always comes back.

This voice, the voice of ambition, seems to be a common curse:

“One [graduate] spoke of continuing to struggle not only with anxiety and fear, but also with ambition: not, that is, with a genuine desire for excellence, but with the feeling of being a failure if you don’t continue to amass the blue-chip names, the need to keep on doing the most prestigious possible thing — and the constant awareness, over your shoulder, of all the prestigious things that your former classmates are doing.”

One friend of mine — a graduate from Canada’s top technical college — cannot enjoy anything if he is not, as he says, “at the top 1% of anything I do.” When he fails to excel, he often falls into a deep depression that may go on for weeks, which is only broken by the euphoria of another short victory.

There’s a constant desire to compete, to find a ladder to climb up, to get the jolt of self-esteem that comes from being one rung higher than somebody else.

Every success, then, is like a small breath of helium into an ever-deflating balloon. The answer is to win, and keep winning.

I end with a quote from the author, who was haunted by his father’s shadow for three decades:

“For years I rode the roller coaster of grandiosity and depression, struggled to separate myself from the need for my father’s approval. (He was both an immigrant and an Ivy League professor, a double whammy.) Even getting a job at Yale turned out to be, like every achievement, no more than a temporary salve. Within a few months, he was asking me when I was going to get my dissertation published. But he wasn’t the real problem anymore, and his death, a decade later, made very little difference. The real problem was, as one of my students has put it, ‘the Frankenstein’s monster of ambition,’ the insatiable need to be ‘the best.’”

Perhaps the best way to be “the best” is, well, to not want to be the best at all.


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