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The Myth of Meritocracy Is The Real Criminal In The College Admissions Scandal

A Yale professor argues (extremely convincingly) that the system is rigged.

There’s an idea at the core of American society that, thanks to such headlines as the Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman college admissions scandal, more and more people are beginning to realize is untrue. It’s the notion that anyone from any class can get to the elite class through grit and a little bit of can-do-spirit. In his new book, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, Daniel Markovits holds a light to this thought and shows the many tears in the paper-thin premise of meritocracy itself.

Markovits, who teaches at Yale Law School and sees the advantages and disadvantages of the elite university system at work, argues that this principal has only served to entrench elite systems through gatekeeping, keep the working and middle classes from meaningful advancement, and shuttered the elite class in a game of lock-step, protecting their caste system at the cost of their own personal wants, desires, and humanity. In his book, he lays out the case for dismantling the elite university system, which he says becomes the launching point for the rest of many people’s lives, and creating a system where the advantages of being elite aren’t so advantageous, and the economic struggles of being working or middle class are less so. 

Markovits spoke to Fatherly about the “Meritocracy Trap,” why the college admissions scandal is just a bright and shiny object obscuring the real scandal of how the elite university system functions, and how to make public school systems more equitable for all families.  

Why did you decide to write The Meritocracy Trap?

The Yale Law School student body overwhelmingly comes from privilege. Just like every other elite university in the United States, Yale has more students at the top 1% of the income distribution than the bottom half. It’s really striking to see just how foreign and alienating the world of the American elite is for people who grew up outside of it.

It was striking to see that my students [see] the extent of the difference of the world that they are entering, and they feel that that world is in a deep way hostile to the lives that they come from. On the other side, talking to students who do come from privilege, it also became clear that although there are a thousand ways in which this was a great benefit to them and they have all sorts of advantages, many of which are not just, it’s also true that the childhoods that they went through did not help their lives go well.

How so?

Even the privileged are subject to pressures of competition in schools, and an endless routine of training and practice and drilling and testing and worrying about whether they’ll clear the next hurdle or not. Then there’s self presentation, and then in the end, self manipulation, in order to become the next person that the next institution will want. That was also a kind of alienation, or deformation, of the self. Even those who seem to have all the advantages aren’t served well by the system that we’re in. Those two personal perspectives on meritocratic inequality run through the book. 

In your eyes, what is the meritocracy trap?

Meritocracy is the idea that people should get ahead based on their accomplishments, not their parent’s social class, or their race, gender, or sexual orientation. You can’t think about them other than their accomplishments. That seems like it’s common sense; like it’s a fair way to give everyone a shot at success, but in fact, meritocracy isn’t the leveler that we often hold it out to be. 

It’s become more nearly the thing it was meant to defeat. It’s a new kind of aristocracy. Only now, it’s based on schooling, not on breeding. Meritocratic competition is one that, even when everybody plays by the rules, only the rich can win. People commonly say we have so much inequality because we don’t have enough meritocracy, because the rich somehow cheat to get and stay ahead. While the rich do, sometimes, cheat, the bigger cause of inequality is that we have too much meritocracy. 

What does ‘too much meritocracy’ mean?

The rules themselves favor the rich. The system is rigged and meritocracy is the culprit. The book works out the ways in which meritocracy excludes people outside of the elite, excludes middle class people and working class people from schooling, from good jobs, and from status and income, and then insults them by saying that the reason they’re excluded is that they don’t measure up, rather than that there’s a structural block to their inclusion. 

The tension of how the ideas of meritocracy, above all else, really value educational institutions and how that’s the gatekeeping mechanism for success and it also being an ideological marker of the middle class — uplift and advancement through education — comes to mind here. Is the middle class basing their value system on a lie?

I think it’s important to emphasize just how economically stratified education has become in this country, even in the public system. A rich community like, say, Scarsdale, New York, where the median house costs over a million a year, spends over twice as much as the national median on its public schools. If you grow up in Scarsdale and you go to public school, your community spends two times as much every year on educating you as if you grow up 50 miles over in a middle class town. Not a poor town, but a middle class town. 

If you grow up really rich and go to an elite private school, that private school might spend five times as much as a typical middle class public school on educating you. And there’s just no way in which middle class families can afford to buy that house in Scarsdale or pay the $50,000 a year tuition to the private school. Because education works, and because these schools are not spending the money on frivolities, they’re spending it on a carefully planned, rigorously disciplined effort to get as much education into their pupils as they can, it’s very very hard for middle class kids to compete with the rich kids who get that education.

The difference in SAT scores between kids whose parents make over $200,000 a year vs. the kids whose parents who are in the middle class, who make $40,000 to $60,000 a year, is now twice as big as the difference between SAT scores of the middle class kids and kids at the poverty level. That’s not a fault of the middle class kids. It just turns out that money buys training. 

Do you have any solutions or thoughts on how to change the funding disparity in public schools?

I have some solutions. To be frank, the solutions I have will work better with private schools than public schools, but similar solutions might work for public schools.

So, all these elite private schools are 501(c)3’s. They’re charities. That means that alumni donations are tax deductible, and it means that if they have endowments, endowments can get income without paying taxes. That’s a huge deal. It’s a massive subsidy to these schools — and even a bigger subsidy to elite, private universities. Just to give you an idea of the size of the subsidy, in a recent years someone calculated that Princeton University’s tax exempt status amounts to a public subsidy of $100,000 per Princeton student. State University of New Jersey at Rutgers spends about $12,500 per student per year. And the local community college spends between $2,000 to $3,000 per student per year. So the allegedly private Princeton is getting a public subsidy that is much bigger than the public universities in its neighborhood. 

Now, when Princeton educates more kids from the top 1 percent of the income distribution than the bottom half, this is a public subsidy for the rich paid for by the middle class. That’s not just. So, one way to start fixing the problem is to have the tax code change to say, “if you want the not for profit status, you have to educate the middle class and working class kids as well as rich kids, you have to double your enrollments so that you educate more kids.” That would dramatically reduce the difference between the educational investments in rich kids than everybody else, by opening up rich institutions to more people from outside the elite, and by diluting the education that they give, so that no one gets this gold-plated education.

Similar things could be done in the public system. A lot of really rich public schools have not for profit parent teacher associations, that now get all kinds of tax advantages. A similar mechanism could be applied to those.

Zoning laws could also help to open up rich communities. One of the reasons that the median home price in Scarsdale is so high is because it’s single family large lot zoning, making it impossible to build apartments. The federal government could encourage communities to open up their zoning to allow working class people to move in. Of course, communities won’t want that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.

The idea that the failure to advance in a meritocratic system is a personal failure really came into light when the college admissions scandal was unveiled. I was wondering if you had any thoughts of how the ideas of meritocracy and wealth intersect with the admissions scandal.

What made the college admissions scandal illegal is that the colleges did not capture the benefits of their own corruption. If the rich families had simply given the money to Yale or to University of Southern California in order to get their kids in, that would have been legal. So, it’s legal to get your kid in those other ways. Legacy preferences are legal and are corrupt.

But it’s dangerous to focus on that kind of corruption. That kind of corruption is actually pretty rare. Even the legacy preference, although real, is not the dominant cause of the skew to wealth at elite colleges. You can see that corruption is rare because it was so incredibly elaborate, complicated and expensive. That shows you how unusual it is. Even with respect to legacy preferences, if you look at the most elite universities, their student bodies actually have the highest grades and test scores. At law school, for example, the top five law schools collectively enroll a substantial majority of the nationwide applications whose LSAT scores are in the 99th percentile.

So, it’s both at the most elite universities have so to speak, the most meritorious students, most of the most meritorious students go to the most elite universities, those numbers would be very different if the dominant cause of corruption was elite or legacy admissions preferences.

The dominant cause is so-called “merit.” When you focus on the scandals, you say, “it’s a scandal that they didn’t get in on the merits.” What you’re implicitly accepting is that if they got in the merits, it would be okay. But actually, it’s not okay, because what the system we talked about earlier in which the rich buy expensive educations for their kids and the injustice of that shows that when people get in on their “merits,” that’s a form of exclusion and hierarchy. And that’s the thing we need to focus on. Taking your eye off that big ball to look at the shiny little thing about somebody cheating — it’s outrageous that they cheated. But the real story is different. 

So you mentioned this profound alienation that working and middle class people feel in elite institutions. Where does that come from?

At Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, it’s an essential part of the business model of these universities that they will make their students privileged. So if you come from working class or even middle class roots, what Yale will do is make you rich. That’s what it aims to do; thats its ideology; and so it’s telling you to turn your back on your roots. It can’t not tell you that, because if it stops telling you that, it won’t be an elite institution in an economically unequal society. That’s a deep tension. That’s not an accident in the system; it’s a central feature of the system. 

What would a just admissions process to universities look like?

In my vision of justice, the top colleges are much less elite. So, right now we live in a world in which an enormous amount depends on where you get into college. The top investment banks, for example, recruit effectively only at eight or 10 elite colleges. The top law firms are dominated by graduates of the top five or 10 law schools. What that means is that when colleges are deciding who to admit, they are actually deciding who is going to get ahead in their income or status across the whole of their lives. College admissions criteria have to bear an incredible pressure of allocating advantages in society.

If elite colleges were less elite, and they had many more students, then there’d be much less pressure on admissions. Elite colleges could admit people for a thousand different reasons — some of them would decide that they really care about community engagement, so they’d admit students who were committed to their communities.

Just to give you an example, I know a young German woman. In Germany, there is much less income inequality. There are no elite universities. She was admitted to medical school, but the medical school that admitted her was an eight hour drive from her parents. She decided she did not want to go that far away from home, from her family, and friends, to go to university. She abandoned the idea of becoming a doctor and enrolled in pharmacy school instead. Now, in the United States, it’s hard to imagine that somebody would do that.

Yeah, it is.

The difference between your income and status as a doctor and a pharmacist is so big that the pressure to pick the most prestigious thing you can get into is really high. Germany, it turns out, the way in which the medical professionals are ranged, doctors make a lot less money and have a lot less status and pharmacists make more money and have more status. They can write routine prescriptions. It’s perfectly rational for someone to say: I like my hometown, I like my family, I like my friends. I want to help people get healthy. And I don’t really are if I do it as a pharmacist or as a doctor.

So the pressure is off because society is working. And that’s the sort of vision that I have in mind. 

You mentioned the way that the system is set up also harms the elite. I was wondering if you could dive into that. 

I think we have to have a subtle understanding of harm. The harms to the elite don’t count politically in the sense that even if these harms are egregious, they don’t give anybody in the middle or working class who is excluded from advantage any reason to be sympathetic, right? They just don’t count in that way. But there are all kinds of things that don’t count politically, that if you are experiencing them, are still real to you to your life. 

Let’s say you’re a typical 1% kid. Your parents both graduated from elite universities, they got married and moved to a fancy neighborhood, they picked the neighborhood based on schools even though you weren’t born yet. They conceived you, they had you, they raised you. They started getting all kinds of elaborate child care because they thought it would be good for your education in the long run. They started enrolling you in various things that they thought would help you learn. Maybe one of them quit work to take care of you in a more intensive way.

They send you to school. The schools are ruthless. From very early on, you understand that you have to pass tests, do well, get into the next school. Maybe you were rejected from 19 of the 20 pre-schools you applied to. You have the sense of failure and of striving and evaluation. You learn very early on that if you want to succeed, you have to please others who are applying standards that you don’t really believe in. You start shaping yourself to to those standards. You do that all through elementary and high school. You get to college and realize you have to keep doing that because you have to get into multiple medical schools or business schools. You take courses you don’t care about because you want to get the grades that you need to get to get into these things.

You finish this up, you’re 30, you get a job, and the job requires you to work 80 hours a week. Now you’ve spent your whole life molding yourself to suit an economic order in order to preserve your caste. You’re really rich, but you don’t have a self, you don’t know what you want or how to want things. Maybe, if you’re a self aware person, you have the realization that your privilege is coming off the back of excluding others. 

What should parents know, or recognize, about these institutions they are thrusting their kids into?

If you’re outside of the elite, and you’re working or middle class, I think it’s important to know that the system really is stacked against you. Not your fault, not your kids fault. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get lucky or beat the odds, but they are long odds. The odds are long because the elite have rigged the game in its favor. So, if you’re outside of the elite, those are the lessons to take. To see the structural inequality for what it is, rather than turning blame inward on yourself or outward on other disadvantaged people.

If you’re in the elite, I think the thing to understand is that this system is one unjust, and two, not in your human interests. You can’t take your kids out of the rat race, because it’s a real race and it matters. But if you can soften the competition for them a little bit, help them figure out what they want, you can be deliberate about ends, not means. Deliberate about what’s worth doing, what you care about, rather than how to get what you care about.

We have a system in which all the emphasis is on figuring out how to get what you care about, rather than figure out what you do care about.