Extended Commentary: Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Inequality in Higher Education.

In March 2019, the largest college-university admissions cheating scandal in US history hit the news. As a result of a law enforcement investigation called Operation Varsity Blues (OVB), more than fifty wealthy parents were charged with paying over $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William "Rick" Singer to help their children fake their way into elite institutions of their choice. While the bulk of the offending parents included members of the business elite, the most high-profile names were actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. (1)

The schemes OVB targeted included a variety of transgressions designed to get underqualified children of wealthy parents into highly competitive colleges and universities. These included the hiring of a testing surrogate to take entrance exams for the applicants, bribing exam administrators to inflate test scores, and falsification of the need for accommodations normally reserved for students with learning disabilities, which allowed the applicants extra time to take the exams. In addition, the schemes involved bribery of coaches and administrators to give them preference as athletes recruited for sports they did not play, with some parents fraudulently photoshopping their children into athletic competitions. On top of all this, the payments were funneled through a fake nonprofit that Singer had created and were written off as tax deductions by the parents.

The OVB scams were illegal, but what is perhaps more significant are the ways in which the legalized privileged of the wealthy amounts to an affirmative action program of sorts that gives students from these families an unfair advantage over less privileged students--calling into question the notion that our educational system and its impact on economic opportunities is based on merit rather than on class background or social status.

Privilege and Meritocracy

Besides cheating, in Singer's terms, there are two ways of gaining admission to top-tier colleges and universities. The "front door" is based on the merit of the applicants; the "back door" is based on donating substantial sums of money. Since the latter is no guarantee of acceptance--there is no explicit quid pro quo--it is perfectly legal, but few children of large donors are denied admission. Legal as well are expensive test preparation services, now a multimillion dollar industry, as well as privileged cultural experiences such as travel, music lessons, and opportunities to develop skills in cost-intensive sports that enhance students' personal profiles. Of course, the high price of tuition means that less privileged students cannot afford to attend these educational institutions--without substantial financial assistance and/or accumulating large amounts of debt--even if they are admitted. (2)

Another legal way by which privileged students gain an advantage is through their parents' ability to purchase homes in affluent neighborhoods, where property taxes fund public schools with far more educational resources than in less privileged areas. Robert Reich characterizes so-called public schools in many wealthy communities as de facto private schools "whose tuition is hidden away in the purchase price of upscale homes ... and in the corresponding property taxes." (3) Moreover, about 12 percent of the more than 14,000 school districts in the United States receive supplemental funding through private foundations set up for parents to make tax-deductible contributions to their children's schools. When cash-rich public schools are not enough for the tastes of these families, there is always the elite private school, which Matthew Stewart calls the "mother lode of all affirmative-action programs." (4) These schools cost many thousands of dollars in tuition each year and come with the expectation that parents will contribute thousands more during the annual fund drives. (5)

Economic Inequality and the New Aristocracy

The United States is currently marked by a degree of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. After the Occupy Wall Street movement coined the slogan "We are the 99%" in 2011, the public has become more aware of the immense wealth that the top 1 percent has accumulated over the last four decades. (6) Later, attention also was drawn to the top 0.1 percent, the group that has garnered the largest share of the gains.

Of course, benchmarks such as the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent are somewhat arbitrary ways of dividing up the population to illustrate the severity of economic inequality, which is wider in the United States than in any other developed country in the world. (7) If we're going to make comparisons between economic brackets, we have to start somewhere, but it's also important to consider more fine-grade differentials. Chris Hayes, for example, notes that the income differential between the bottom 99 percent and the top 1 percent is similar to the differential between the top 0.99 percent and the top 0.01 percent, which is similar to the gap between the top 0.0099 percent and the top 0.0001 percent. (8) At the top of the heap, three billionaires alone--Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett--hold a combined wealth that is worth more than the total wealth owned by the entire bottom half of the US population. (9)

On the other hand, Stewart asks us to take a step back from these uppermost brackets and look at the top 9.9 percent, because not everyone lost ground while the 0.1+ percent got richer. Rather, only those in the bottom 90 percent lost ground. At its peak, in the mid-1980s, the bottom 90 percent accounted for 35 percent of the nation's wealth; three decades later, that share "had fallen 12 points--exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose." (10) At the same time, the top 9.9 percent has "held on to its share of ... [the] economic pie" and continues to own "substantially more wealth than do the other two [groups] combined."

Stewart calls the top 9.9 percent the "new aristocracy." They are the winners in the global economy--the professional, knowledge, and cultural elites who have the talent and skills to succeed in the advanced technological society that has left so many workers behind. We tell ourselves--or at least they tell themselves--that they are the cream of the crop, the ones who have risen to the top in a meritocratic system that justifiably rewards the best and the brightest. Still, in this group as well there is a big difference between the bottom and top of the 9.9 percent bracket. In 2016, for instance, it took $1.2 million in net assets (including real estate) to get into the top 9.9 percent, $2.4 million to reach the group's median, and $10 million to get into the 0.9 percent. (11)

This group is more racially diverse than the old White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment that dominated elite institutions of higher education in the past, but is still mostly White. About 2 percent are African American, 2.4 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent are Asian or multiracial. (12) The good news is that there are no formal legal barriers to entry. The old barriers of inherited wealth and racial privilege have been removed, but new barriers have been put in place, which brings us back to where we began, the elite schools that are the ticket to fortune and fame. Here are a few examples.

One study of thirty-eight elite colleges and universities found that these schools admitted more students from families in the top 1 percent of the population than students from families in the bottom 60 percent (who make less than $65,000 a year). (13) Other data indicate that while less than 2 percent of the nation's students attend expensive pre-college private schools, about a quarter or more of students admitted to the Ivy League institutions of the northeast attended one of these schools. (14) Additionally, more than half of all Black students admitted to elite colleges and universities attended one of the top pre-college schools. If they cannot afford the tuition, there are slots allocated for diversity scholarships, which help administrators and White parents feel like they...

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