February 17, 2013

Perpetuation of the elite

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — 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.

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.

Someday, we may evolve to become a true meritocracy in which we judge people only by their innate abilities and hard work. I think that day will be far off, though, even if we might prefer to think otherwise. Meanwhile, we will try to hold on to our power and privilege and hope to have the ability to pass that privilege on to our chosen successors.

Colin Read contributes to, has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave, and chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @ColinRead2040.