February 17, 2013

Perpetuation of the elite


The poor but resilient student is likely to break that glass ceiling. But these individuals are rare. Admissions at top schools favors graduates of top high schools. Such schools are far more likely to be located in high-income school districts given that, in the U.S. but in few other countries, education is locally funded.

Many of our K-12 schools give the impression that all are equal, and, like the fabled Lake Wobegon on Prairie Home Companion, everybody is above average. This is not so at the best colleges their graduates might attend, despite a tendency at the rest to take the easy path of rewarding mediocrity.

The best colleges, perhaps the top few hundred of a nation with a few thousand institutes of higher learning, are staffed almost exclusively with Ph.D. graduates from a handful of elite colleges. In fact, there is a pronounced glass ceiling in higher education that is even thicker than the one in society as a whole. A Ph.D. from Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., Berkeley and perhaps a few others, will invariably find a good position. 

The rest will struggle, and many Ph.D.s will not find a permanent home. These vagabond Ph.D.s bump from institution to institution and earn far less than most readers of this column. Their teaching load will be heavy, their access to intellectual dialog will be almost completely barred, and their ability to publish in good journals will be restricted.

President Obama rightly espouses the philosophical beauty of a true meritocracy. Yet even he, a Harvard graduate, surrounds himself with advisers from the Ivy League schools.

It might be one thing to tell a compelling story of a society based almost completely on one’s merits. We will never, for many reasons, entirely break the chain of intergenerational advantage. But, it is quite another for each of us to move aside and make room for somebody following us who is more meritorious than we are. Humans naturally try to conserve what we have, even if it, at times, means we undermine those who challenge our good fortune.

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