February 17, 2013

Perpetuation of the elite

I read some interesting studies recently. One was on social mobility. The other was on the perpetuation of elitism in higher education. Both paint the same picture.

In the 1770s, we threw off British oppression to realize a land of opportunity based on one’s sweat of the brow and cleverness of an inventive mind.

Yet, these two nations, the United Kingdom and the United States, exhibit the worst social mobility among the most developed nations.

Social mobility is the predictability of income based on the income of our parents. Here and In the United Kingdom, half of our parents’ economic advantage is passed on to our children. In Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark, less than 20 percent is. In other words, in Canada, 80 percent of one’s success is based on their own hard work, while here we only create half of our success. The rest is an intergenerational privilege.

A corollary is that one without economic advantage is 2.5 times more likely to be held back in the U.S. than in Canada.

This social immobility is surprising. After all, our nation view is a land of opportunity that disbanded family privilege and created a level playing field centuries ago. And yet, the meritocracy is not nearly so robust here as we think.

Of course, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. We can cite examples of Horatio Alger success stories in which an underprivileged but hard-working and intelligent people rise to their true potential. The glass ceiling is not impenetrable, but it is very thick.

I then came across another study that demonstrates a potential root of the phenomenon. It shows higher education is not without its class bias.

Yes, the top schools also admit students who are poor and cannot otherwise afford the steep tuition. These students, though, remain the minority among a student body made up of children of alumni and parents who can afford the full ride.

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