Elite Colleges Reinforce Status Quo

Kenneth GriffinThe graph below is from the Brookings Institute in a blog post, Rising Inequality in Postsecondary Education. But I found out about it via Matt Yglesias who is on a mini-jihad against those who would donate to the top tier “name” schools, Seriously, Don’t Give Money To Fancy Colleges. What the graph shows is that poor kids are under represented even in the moderately competitive schools, much less the elite institutions.

My opinion is that one is likely to get a worse education at the elite colleges. The only reason they are thought to be good is only the very best and and best prepared students are allowed in. I suspect you could take that subset of students, have them do nothing but drink beer for four years, and they would turn out quite well. That’s especially true given that the vast majority of them are from well-to-do families, their careers would be set regardless. The fact is that having a diploma with “Harvard” printed on it means a whole lot more than having a Harvard education.

Elite College Enrollment

The larger point is that the elite institutions perpetuate the existing social order by giving further advantages to the already advantaged. Yet they do it in such a way as to give themselves plausible deniability. Just as the Republican Party can trot out a few black conservatives as an argument that it isn’t racist, Harvard can trot out a few poor students as an argument that their primary mission is something other than reinforcing the status quo.

As Yglesias puts it:

If you took a time machine back to 1914 and proclaimed to the world that the Ivy League was an exclusionary club aimed at the perpetuation of an economic and social elite nobody would have been surprised… But the basic social role of the elite, highly selective institution hasn’t changed—they are both elite and selective, not democratic or egalitarian.

This all comes back to a point I have made many times before: democracy cannot exist in an economy that isn’t reasonably equitable. One of the primary uses of a person’s wealth is to improve the prospects of his children. There’s nothing wrong with that; we are mammals, and that’s how our brains are built. But when one man has billions and another man has nothing, there can’t be any notion of equality of opportunity.

Look at that graph again: 70% of the students at elite colleges come from the upper class. That isn’t just because those in the upper class can afford the prices at these schools. It is also a reflection of the fact that the upper classes have given every other advantage to their children for two decades before that. It starts even before they are born, in the form of better prenatal care. So it’s no surprise that most of those 70% also have high SAT scores—they’ve been invested into their whole lives in ways that simply aren’t available to poor children.

All of this comes from hedge fund manage Kenneth Griffin’s recent $150 million gift to Harvard. Seen clearly, this isn’t about helping the rich; it’s about oppressing the poor. But what would you expect from a Wall Street billionaire?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Elite Colleges Reinforce Status Quo

  1. I’ve been enrolled at four colleges, from a $30K/semester one to a $5K/semester one. By far the more interesting classes and more interesting professors were on the cheaper end.

    I’m sure there are interesting classes/professors at Harvard, and I had some dull classes and dickish profs at the cheap ones. In general, though, I suspect you’re right. I mean, David Brooks taught at Yale. What on Earth could you possibly learn from David Brooks?

    More importantly, what could David Brooks possibly learn from his students? That’s the problem with "elite" education, from a quality standpoint (the inequality issue is bigger, but doesn’t need any exposure; everyone knows that more expensive schools look better on resumes, that’s why people attend them.) The biggest jerk professors are the ones who consider teaching a necessary evil. The best are those who teach because they love a subject and want to share their passion with others. A great teacher learns from her/his students, learns from colleagues, learns everything she/he can. The jerks are pretty high on their supposed accomplishments, and feel no need to be open to learning anything. Since a position at an expensive school is considered by most to be an accomplishment — well, you’ll have more jerks there.

    There’s also the matter of one’s students. Career-minded 21-year-olds are just not often into learning for its own sake. 40-year-olds at community colleges aren’t always, either, but you’ll find more of them who genuinely get into a subject than you will among the young Obamas.

    I’ve had so many fun profs it’s a shame to only mention one, but one of my faves was head of the economics department at a moderately-pricey school that required department heads to teach the 101 courses in their subjects. Most acted like this was the most onerous purgatory imaginable. Not this guy. He spent half of every class gushing about economics, and half railing at the rich kids in class there to fulfill a requirement. The loon actually challenged rich kids who weren’t paying attention to go outside with him and rumble. Complete psycho; I enjoyed him immensely. I slept through the final (booze) and ran to his office to apologize and ask for a makeup exam. He just started ripping off questions, and told me if I could answer them I’d get an A and if not, get the fuck out of his office. I got an A.

    (I flunked grammar, though. Never could understand the rules of English. Still don’t!)

  2. @JMF – I think there is more to teaching than enthusiasm. But the missing ingredient usually [i]is[/i] enthusiasm. The big problem is that education in modern America isn’t really about learning. It’s about cultural signifying.

    I have a friend who is very interested in theology and when he decided to go back to his childhood church, he found that he was an outcast. They didn’t like that he was serious about the religion, because to them it was about cultural signifying, not about finding the truth. When I taught at the college level, I would say roughly half the students had the same attitude toward education: it was not cool to be too interested in education. The "elite" only cared in as much as it was a right of passage. And that was at a state school. Imagine what it must be like at Yale.

    BTW: I believe Brooks’ course was on humility. That’s still funny as hell.

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