College and the growing American divide



This was no surprise:

Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.

The divide between thems-as-got and thems-as-ain’t is becoming even less connected to merit than it ever was (and the connection was weak at the best of times). The myth of a burgeoning meritocracy promoted by Charles Murray, Richard Florida, et al is becoming even more clearly and simply a justification by those on the top side of the divide, a justification for their being there.

Its not just that the successful candidates for the elite schools are indistinguishable from many who don’t make the cut. The very education provided, elite schools compared to others, is also almost indistinguishable. There are myriad examples of people who learned so much at community colleges that they transferred with ease to ‘better’ institutions and did as well (or better) there. I did something of the same myself, starting at one of the lowest ranked four-year colleges and then transferring to another. The second one had much more prestige and, even though I was no perfect student there, the status of that school later helped me get into a top-tier graduate program. The point is, you didn’t have to start at the top but could use perfectly fine classes at lower-level institutions as starting points.

In the past, for my generation certainly, where you started mattered a lot less than where you ended up. A Harvard degree along the way might give an advantage at some point, but it could only help you get that foot in the door. The rest was up to you, and those who had to come in through other means could (and often did) surpass you. However, doing that has gotten more difficult, these past decades, the pedigree meaning more and more as there is less and less room at the top. Today, if you don’t start near the already overcrowded and rather-too-small peak, you will never reach it. Or almost never. No longer is it really possible to start at the bottom and work your way up. That American myth has exploded.

So parents, and their children, aim from the start to reach above that college dividing line, the one between the elite institutions and the rest. They know, just as the admissions officers do, that the education one can receive at another, less prestigious college may be just as fine as that of the elite ones, but they also know that the race to the top is unfair and that those who graduate from elite institutions–whether they learned anything there or not–have an advantage that, today, will last a lifetime.

I first noticed how bad this had gotten a decade ago, when attending an event filled with high-profile bloggers in Washington, DC. Half of them, I discovered, had gone to Harvard. The others were almost all from similarly elite institutions. They could take the chance on this new platform because they had backgrounds that would always assure them of jobs, of their place within the new American elite, even were this new stuff to fail. Competition in this supposedly egalitarian new-media journalism explosion was stacked in favor of those from elite colleges–just as is, today more than ever, almost everything else.

Might it be that the graduates of the elite schools are simply better?


What the colleges are now admitting, that the candidates they turn away are as good as those they accept, has been true for much longer than anyone imagines. In fact, it has always been true. The students where I teach now may be poorly prepared for college, but they are not stupid. For a good number, it is just the opposite. Coming from difficulties few of us from the old American middle class can imagine, some of them are still managing to claw their way to the top–and they are learning just as much from their classes as students at elite universities do. The rude awakening, however, is going to come: They will know as much, and will be as well prepared, but they are going to continue losing out to students no more able than they, but students who have degrees from more prestige institutions.

With a withering middle class, there is much less room near the top than has been true in America for a century, now. So everyone aims for the very top–which is why Stanford and the other elite schools are now accepting one in twenty candidates. If you don’t make it all the way into the elite, the feeling is among the remnant of the middle class, you aren’t going to make it anywhere at all. And there is reason for believing that is true, as the gap between the rich and everyone else grows, as the possibility of solid upper-middle-class security disappears.

The numbers, like the results of the applications, are telling.