• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Higher Education and Michael Sandel’s ‘The Tyranny of Merit’

Higher ed is rightly focused on the problem of identity privilege. But what about the massive privilege conferred by a college degree -- and the ways in which that privilege is straining our democracy?

January 7, 2021

Peggy McIntosh famously described white privilege as an invisible knapsack containing a set of advantages that included items like the ability to own a home in a desirable area, the ability to spend time with people of your own race and the ability to go shopping without being followed. There are many such items on her list, and while I think some are a bit thin, I find the general idea of an invisible knapsack of white privilege quite compelling.

I speak on something like 25 campuses a year (this year the number is about the same, but the visits are virtual), and I have heard of many college staff and faculty leading students through the exercise of unpacking their knapsack of privilege. Most stick to the original McIntosh text and do the activity with respect to race, but it’s also common to have students unpack their knapsack of gender and sexuality privilege.

I’ve been reading Michael Sandel’s powerful new book The Tyranny of Merit, and it occurred to me that, in over 25 years of being involved in higher education, I have never heard of anyone unpacking the knapsack of college privilege. The more I reflect on this, the more stunning I find it, given just how many advantages our society bestows on college graduates.

The Tyranny of Merit is a searing account of the way that our system of meritocracy has perverted our democracy, and the central responsibility that higher education bears for this disaster. Meritocracy can be defined as the idea that people with the highest merit should rise to the top, and that those who have achieved high places have earned their comfort, status and authority.

Merit is, of course, contextual. In a warrior society, merit would be determined by prowess with a gun or a sword. In our knowledge-based economy, graduating from college is the single most powerful symbol of making it. But, as Sandel highlights, there is a problem with this. He writes, “Elites have so valorized a college degree -- both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem -- that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate.”

He goes on to say that college degrees have been “weaponized.” It is an interesting choice of word. In progressive circles, the word “weaponized” is often used to refer to dominant identities like male, white, heterosexual and Christian. The idea is that these “dominant” identities are often forced into the world in a manner that oppresses their converse: women, people of color, gay folks and religious minorities.

Sandel is offering an alternative view, or at least an additional one. He does not contest that America has structural racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. He simply points out that we also have a socioeconomic hierarchy where people who go to college not only wind up on top, but they also get to feel virtuous about their achievement.

Sandel is not the only recent author to highlight the privileges associated with having a college degree. I remember reading Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids, a forensic analysis of just how bad inequality in America has become and seeing him refer to people who have graduated from college as “rich.” Wait, what? I know lots of people who have graduated from college whom I don’t think of as rich. As I kept reading, it became clear to me why. Because virtually the only people I know are people who have graduated from college. And so, I naturally compare their incomes/lifestyles to each other, rather than the wider world of American society.

But if you consider American society as a whole, only one-third of adults have graduated from college. The lucky ones who have that college degree live so much better than other Americans, on virtually every relevant quality of life metric, that Putnam calls them what they are relative to the whole: rich.

And then there is Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal, in which he asks an obvious but impertinent question: Why should people who do well in school not only live so much better than other people, but have the right to rule over them, too? Having done pretty well in school myself, and never having questioned the connection between getting good grades and doing well in life, I found myself staring at the text with my mouth agape. (I’ve written about this before.)

The shock was similar to the first time that I read bell hooks on white supremacy. I had grown up feeling that my mom’s biryani smelled weird and that the aroma of hamburgers on a white family’s backyard grill was normal. Reading critical race theory helped me understand that this was a social construction and a form of racism that I had internalized.

It turns out there was a similar dynamic at play between acquiring education and getting ahead in life. I equated it as something natural. If you had wings, you could fly; if you had fins, you could swim; if you got good grades in school, you lived well and were in charge of other people. Everyone else -- which is to say, the vast majority of my fellow Americans -- understood this was perfectly natural, too.

Didn’t they?

Reflecting on that question gave me a very different understanding of the power of Donald Trump saying that he loved the poorly educated.

So, let’s unpack that knapsack of privilege related to having a college degree. It includes a host of material items. College graduates live longer and have larger incomes, more comfortable housing and better health care. But it also includes a whole range of other things. College graduates enjoy greater self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and more social status than those who did not graduate from college.

Employment statistics during the pandemic capture this dynamic in a nutshell: over 20 percent of people with only a high school education lost their jobs, while only 7 percent of people with college degrees suffered the same.

College graduates do not have to feel insulted when they see a job advertisement that reads “college degree required,” because they have, in fact, acquired the necessary credential. We do not see such advertisements with respect to any other identity in America anymore. It is unacceptable to say that Irish or Indians may not apply for this or that job. But it is perfectly normal to see those who did not graduate from college excluded in this way.

And just as the aristocrats of past centuries passed down their privilege, meritocrats like me (and probably you, too) know how to navigate the universe of higher education (the importance of test prep courses, the push to find our kids fancy internships) such that we can virtually cement the socioeconomic futures of their children. Nearly 80 percent of the children of the top income quartile of Americans (almost all of whom have graduated from college) will wind up with a bachelor’s degree. Fewer than 35 percent of the children of the rest of American society can expect to do the same. It is not quite the same as passing on aristocratic privilege, but it’s not wildly different, either.

It turns out that, while they are both living better, ruling others and making sure their children succeed in a world they have helped create, the highly educated are pouring scorn on those without their privilege.

Sandel reports a study in which social psychologists surveyed college graduates across both the United States and Europe, asking them how they felt about a range of disfavored groups, including obese people, gay people and ethnic and religious minorities. Across nations, college-educated people ranked those who are poorly educated as the group they liked the least. Moreover, while people reported some embarrassment at their other prejudices, they were proud of the fact that they looked down upon the poorly educated. After all, if you graduated from college, you have merited your good life. If you haven’t, you deserve your fate.

If deconstructing privilege were not such a high-profile sport in educated circles, the advantages enjoyed by those with a college degree might feel less galling. Indeed, the dominant intellectual and cultural paradigm of our times is that someone’s race, gender and sexuality have a profound impact on people’s perspective and lived experience. Campuses play a critical role in not just the intellectual formation of these theories, but also the cultural power they come to have. Higher education should take great pride in this.

But clearly having a college degree is a form of identity that confers massive privileges, which also impact lived experience and perspective. So why do other forms of identity get movements with profound cultural power (Me Too and Black Lives Matter), while the scant attention paid to educational privilege is wrapped in the boring language of economics with phrases like "the returns to education"?

The situation today looks something like this. As we meritocrats open up our knapsacks and enjoy all the material benefits of our college education, we not only scorn those who do not share our educational privilege, we scold them for other forms of privilege -- the men for their male privilege and the whites for their race privilege. And we do it with such a sense of self-righteousness that we entirely forget about the privilege of our own identity -- even as we are enjoying those privileges in full view of the people we are scorning and scolding.

It is a classic case of “pointing to the mote in your brother’s eye while ignoring the beam in your own.” Except other people are not ignoring the beam in our eye -- they can see it, and it enrages them.

Sandel is not afraid to name the problem. It’s hubris, he says, pure and simple. People who think they have earned their place of success and authority tend to believe they are paragons of virtue, even as their arrogant ways are causing division and destruction.

The institution that is most responsible for this is one that many of us deeply love and believe in: higher education. Sandel writes, “Higher education has become a sorting machine that promises mobility on the basis of merit but entrenches privilege and promotes attitudes toward success corrosive of the commonality democracy requires.”

The hard truth is that, even as colleges critique other forms of privilege, they do everything in their power to advertise the massive advantages graduates of their institution enjoy. College equals privilege. It’s part of the brand, a feature, not a bug.

I’m trying to find a kinder word for this than hypocrisy, but if we look at this situation from the perspective of those who do not have college degrees, how would we characterize it? So many people learn in college that privilege is nefarious, and yet they are part of a system whose goal is to confer advantage.

By the way, we should elevate the perspective of those without privilege when it comes to our system of meritocracy -- in other words, those without a college degree. We speak often about the importance of looking at the world from the perspective of those with less power when it comes to the structures of race, gender, sexuality, etc.?

So many of us believe higher education has the power to address some of our deepest problems, from ending racism to addressing climate change. So, what can we do collectively about a massive problem that we are clearly perpetuating, even if we do so without ill intent? The problem is clear: meritocracy, as it is symbolized by a college degree, is eroding the feelings of solidarity and commonality that are at the heart of a functioning democracy.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top