American universities and their role in a country at war with itself

Several new books ask whether it is fair that ostensibly meritocratic societies have granted such sweeping power to a small group of academic institutions, such as Stanford © New York Times/Redux /eyevine

America’s elite universities have long been the envy of the world. American institutions hold the top five endowments, hold 8 of the top 10 spots in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and dominate many of the subject lists published by the Shanghai Ranking.

But closer to home, America’s higher education system is under attack from all sides. Conservatives accuse college campuses of becoming hotbeds of “woke” ideology; Liberals complain that low-income and minority students are still underserved and shunned from good schools and the best degrees that qualify them for lucrative jobs. So many students are leaving college burdened with crippling debt that President Joe Biden recently announced a $20,000 loan forgiveness program that has become a central issue in next month’s midterm elections for the Congress.

In a country at war with itself, universities are at ground zero. Their research and cultural influence were the building blocks of the West’s success, but now critics say the industry is rotting American society from within.

On Monday, Harvard University, the nation’s oldest and probably best-known institution, will be in the dock in the Supreme Court, facing a legal challenge to the way it selects its undergraduate students. The plaintiffs allege that the university unlawfully favors black and Hispanic students over Asian American applicants in a misguided attempt to promote diversity. They want judges to ban Harvard and higher education more generally from considering race.

On the other side, the university’s affirmative action program has drawn dozens of supporting briefs from big business, other educational institutions and the Biden administration. They argue that society benefits when students are exposed to people from different backgrounds and when companies can tap into a racially diverse pool of college graduates.

What both parties share is the belief that access to an elite university education is essential for anyone wishing to climb the ladder to social and entrepreneurial success. This assumption is reflected around the world. My parents bought into it – they put off saving for their retirement to send me to the Ivy League debt-free. This is why middle-class British parents are obsessed with admissions to Oxbridge, and why French populists decry the power of the large schools.

Now, several new and thoughtful books ask whether it is right that ostensibly meritocratic societies have entrusted such vast power to a small group of academic institutions. Although everyone answers the question differently, they all conclude that the winning approach to higher education must change.

Evan Mandery, author of poison ivy, focuses primarily on class. A contemporary of mine at Harvard, he now teaches at John Jay College within the publicly funded City University of New York, which gives him insight into both America’s elite and its middle and lower classes. in search of energy. His book attempts to demolish the claims of America’s most prestigious schools that they dedicate their tax breaks, gigantic endowments, and selective admissions to the common good.

He pulls together statistics and personal stories to show that the best schools primarily educate the wealthy and steer them toward lucrative careers that allow them to send their children and gifts back to their alma mater. Sixty-three percent of Harvard graduates in 2020 went into finance, consulting or technology, he reports. In contrast, approximately 60% of John Jay students work for the government or a non-profit organization. “Elite colleges are exceptionally good at keeping rich kids rich,” Mandery writes.

While the few poor students attending wealthy colleges see an increase in social mobility, the impact is small. Three CUNY colleges lead the nation in economic mobility: at least 10% of graduates move from the lowest income quintile to the top quintile; Harvard and Princeton fail to break 2 percent.

Mandery also explores the struggles of low-income students who are admitted to elite schools. Among them is Brianna Suslovic, who spends most of her freshman year ‘frenzied about how we’d get the money’ then is pilloried on social media for ‘wealth shaming’ after making reference to a classmate’s conversation about her “British au pair” as a “candle”.

He argues that American parents choose everything from where to live to what sports their children play, with an eye on college admissions prospects. By the time Americans turn 18, many have already fallen off what Mandery calls “the escalator” to economic progress.

Addressing the resulting inequalities requires more than the racial considerations currently before the Supreme Court, argues Mandery. The preferences that most universities give to the children of donors and alumni, as well as to students who play elite sports, do real harm. Abandoning them would deprive well-to-do whites of their family advantages and force them to confront the injustices they perpetuate with monster donations to already wealthy institutions, Mandery argues.

“Donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University is generous but not only. Helping the smart kid in your freshman seminar at Yale land a summer internship is generous but not only that,” he writes. “It is impossible to preach charity while hoarding.”

Adam Harris, editor for The Atlantic, is also concerned about inequality within higher education, but he focuses on race rather than economics in The state must provide which has just been released. This vividly written history of segregation in American higher education includes the story of Lloyd Gaines, the sharecropper’s son who disappeared without a trace after fighting in the Supreme Court for the right to go at Missouri Law School. It also delves into the 19th century founding of integrated colleges such as Oberlin and Berea, and the efforts of Southern states and their flagship institutions to avoid giving equal access to black students.

Harris documents the myriad ways in which racism continues to limit educational opportunities for most black Americans, those who cannot squeeze through the narrow Ivy League keyhole. The lasting impact of skewed funding formulas and other quibbles is made visible through Harris’ experiences as a college student in the 2010s. When his historically black campus, Alabama A&M, was so short of funds that nests -henhouses weren’t filled and broken elevators weren’t fixed, the mostly white campus across town, the University of Alabama at Huntsville, had modern dorms, libraries that stayed open three more hours and periodicals Harris had never heard of, let alone read.

Like the other two authors, Will Bunch does not insist on the worrying links between higher education and inequalities. In After the Falls of the Ivory Tower, he calls the current structure “a fake meritocracy rigged to make half of America hate it.” A leftist columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he focuses on how the vast expansion of educational opportunities after World War II went awry, leaving Americans struggling with student loans. Some economists blame the $1.7 billion debt on slowing growth, delaying family formation as well as populist anger.

His hard-hitting story argues that the growing share of Americans who have gone to college and his inability to pay for many of them are behind many important developments in the United States over the past 75 years. Bunch draws events from across the political spectrum, from the 1960s civil rights movement and the rise of right-wing radio in the 1980s to the 2010s Occupy Wall Street protests and recent vaccine skepticism.

Some of it seems a bit over the top, but Bunch convincingly pierces the betrayal felt by people who went into debt to pay for “beer and circuses” at state universities, but failed to drop out. strong middle-class jobs. Their anger at being denigrated by better educated “experts” is palpable and dangerous. “We missed the moment to make higher education a public mandate that would benefit all of American society through economic invention, civic engagement, and general enlightenment. Instead, we privatized the university and have labeled it a meritocracy so that it can be rigged for winners while perceived losers are mocked and ridiculed,” Bunch laments.

The three authors argue that the only equitable solution would be a major redistribution of higher education wealth, either through massive government intervention or through a decision by donors to redirect their largesse. Philanthropists such as Mackenzie Scott have made substantial grants to historically black universities, and Amherst College recently removed admissions preferences for children of alumni.

But I’m not sure it’s spreading far enough or fast enough to make a difference. Exclusivity sells, as anyone who’s ever walked around an Ivy League campus and seen the famous names slapped on every building knows. And most people will do just about anything to gain an advantage for their children – who could forget the dozens of wealthy parents who pleaded guilty in the Varsity Blues scandal to trying to use bribes? wine to get their kids into Stanford, Georgetown and other great schools?

Poison Ivy: How elite colleges are dividing us by Evan Mandery, The New Press, $27.99, 384 pages

The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Fix Them by Adam Harris, Ecco, $27.99/£27.99, 272 pages

After the Fall of the Ivory Tower: How College Shattered the American Dream and Blew Our Politics – and How to Fix It by Will Bunch, William Morrow, $28.99, 320 pages

Brooke Masters is the FT’s U.S. Investments and Industries Editor