American Meritocracy is a Sham (Higher Education)

I.

Intergenerational socioeconomic mobility in the US is very low relative to our peer countries.  Why is that?  Is it because America is a real meritocracy where the poor stay poor due to their inferior moral character?  Or is it because the American economic system, while it pretends to be meritocratic, in fact systematically favors the children of rich parents over the children of poor parents? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

There’s a lot to be said about how poverty causes malnutrition and stress in children, which make learning more difficult.  And there’s a lot to be said about how public schools in poorer neighborhoods often receive less funding, again making learning more difficult.  The system makes it harder for children of poor parents to achieve merit.  But that’s not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about the fact that even when children of poor parents manage to demonstrate merit in spite of the difficulties, the deck is still stacked against them.

Higher education is a major gatekeeper for higher paying professions.  The Pew Research Center found that a college degree is “one of the most effective assets available for experiencing upward economic mobility,” (they also found that higher education protects against downward mobility).  Therefore, meritocratic entrance to higher education is important for socioeconomic meritocracy in America as a whole.

So, is entrance to higher education meritocratic?

No.  The very rich, the rich, and the upper middle class all have significant advantage over the rest of America in college admissions.

II.

Suppose you’re a parent and you want to ensure that your child gets into the university of your choice. What are your options?

Option 1: Legal bribery

If you’re very very rich, you can bribe your way in.  For many billionaires, this strategy consists of a one-time donation to a single school, but it can also come in the form of repeated million dollar donations to a wide array of elite schools.  This type of bribery is completely legal, and of course, tax deductible.

Option 2: Illegal bribery

If you’re not rich enough to bribe your school of choice with a “charitable donation,” maybe you can bribe an individual.  This year saw the largest case of college admissions fraud ever uncovered, with more than 50 indicted co-conspirators, and allegedly 750 total families.  Of course college admissions fraud was not unheard of before; what made the 2019 case special was the broad scope.  There’s a constant trickle of legal cases involving bribes paid by parents to coaches or admissions officers without a massive conspiracy or middle man.  Here’s one from 2018, and one from 2017.

Option 3: Legal bribery again

Maybe you’re not wealthy enough to buy a building for a few million dollars, and you’re not wealthy enough (or desperate enough) to pay 100 thousand dollars to convince a coach or admissions officer to get your child into college.  You can still bribe your way in.  In fact, if you’re upper middle class, you’re bribing schools whether you want to or not.

Over the years, college admissions officers have repeatedly come forward to blow the whistle on the classist nature of college admissions.  Colleges, although they often purport to be need-blind, routinely accept lower achieving students from wealthy backgrounds because these students will pay full tuition.  One admissions officer in a recent New York Times article on the subject says “I call them the C.F.O. Specials, because they appeal to the college’s chief financial officer. They are challenging for the faculty, but they bring in a lot of revenue.”

In essence, rather than uphold the meritocratic values they supposedly stand for, colleges accept bribes in the form of tuition.  Parents communicate their ability to pay via markers like geographic location, choice of high school (public or private), their child’s SAT score (which can be drastically improved with an expensive tutor), and their child’s participation in an elite sport.

III.

Of course, this kind of bribery isn’t good for our schools.  For example, the aforementioned New York Times article brings up the fact that unprepared affluent students have a negative effect on faculty morale.  But ironically, these kinds of admission practices actually make the school look better to prospective students.

The US News College Rankings make a huge difference to prospective students—for prestigious universities, moving up the ranking brings in more and better applicants—and the US News Rankings favor schools with wealthier students.  School wealth directly affects the US News Ranking (and of course, schools are wealthier if they accept bribes).  Faculty salary (presumably largely a function of the school’s financial situation), also plays a role in the ranking.  And, finally, student standardized test scores (again, wealthy students are far more likely to have high SAT scores due to access to expensive tutoring) account for more than three quarters of the “student excellence” part of the US News rankings formula.

IV.

So, given the role that higher education plays in eventual socioeconomic status, I think we can pretty definitively say that America is not a meritocracy.   Meritocracy is a lie that keeps the upper class and the upper middle class in power.

So, my basic call to action is.  Like.  Don’t pretend that the system is meritocratic.  In our personal lives, we shouldn’t assume that people who went to prestigious universities are better or more intelligent than people who didn’t.  Because college admissions are demonstrably un-meritocratic.

Beyond the personal, is there hope?  Can we reform the system into something more meritocratic?  Probably yes.  As I discussed in a previous post, most of America’s peer nations have higher economic mobility, which would seem to indicate that a different but similar system can work.  More on this later, probably.

Is a meritocratic system desirable?  More on this later, probably, too.

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