We’ve recently concluded another graduation season. The annual ritual wherein professors and deans, decked out in their wizard regalia, engage in a collective mystification of contemporary inequalities. By the end of the ceremony, diplomas in hand after four years of striving, graduates will come to believe they “deserve” the relatively comfortable jobs, above-average (dual) incomes, and relatively stable homelives that likely await them. Over time, an implicit (and often explicit) conviction will grow that nongraduates are reciprocally unworthy of working the same jobs, enjoying the same lifestyles, and being afforded the same respect or deference as people like themselves. In previous eras, magic men sought to transform lead into gold. Contemporary wizards perform an even more arcane sort of alchemy—transforming gold into perceptions of “merit.”
This isn’t all we do, of course. Institutions of higher learning serve many social purposes. They are hubs for knowledge production and dissemination. They are centers of civic development and cultural exchange. For those from nontraditional academic backgrounds who defy the odds, educational institutions can serve as important engines of social mobility. More typically, however, colleges and universities are dedicated to social reproduction—that is, helping children from relatively affluent backgrounds reproduce or enhance their parents’ social position. Elite universities, in particular, serve as the final components in a privilege laundering scheme that starts before kindergarten and extends through the job market.
The Sham of “Elite” Education
At every level, education in the United States is heavily stratified. Relatively affluent Americans routinely spend tens of thousands of dollars per year to educate their children in private schools or to live in areas where they can be “zoned” into elite public schools. They dedicate immense time and effort to get their kids into gifted programs, to help them cultivate the “right” extracurriculars, to prepare them to succeed on standardized tests and beyond. For many, it’s a rat race that starts in pre-K, all with the aim of helping their kids eventually secure a seat at Harvard.
And not for nothing. A degree from a top college yields powerful socioeconomic dividends—especially for those who aspire to work in “symbolic” industries (media, law, technology, finance, consulting, etc.). As higher education credentials are more common and the generic value of a degree declines, where people graduated from matters more and more.
Elite K-12 schools help ensure that the most valuable brand-name degrees end up in the hands of the “right kind of people” by allowing top-ranked colleges and universities to select for children of well-off families (who can pay full tuition, make generous endowment gifts, and whose progeny will be well-positioned to make alumni donations), but on ostensibly “meritocratic” grounds – i.e., on the basis of the supposedly “superior” K–12 education these affluent students received at their fancy schools. Elite college or university credentials enable employers to perform the same sleight of hand: through their preference for graduates of top universities, elite firms likewise overwhelmingly select candidates from affluent backgrounds, albeit on formally “meritocratic” grounds (again, on the basis of the “superior” education they are purported to have received, this time in college).
It’s a neat trick, but here’s the “tell”: the education “elite” students end up receiving is typically not that extraordinary, in truth. Research shows that, for children of relatively affluent families, it actually makes little-to-no practical difference whether they attend elite K–12 schools or not. They already possess what others stand to gain from these schools by virtue of where and how they live, parental cultural capital, extracurricular activities and social networks, and beyond.
For students of less privileged backgrounds who get folded into these schools, there is a more substantial benefit, but it’s almost purely nonacademic in nature. The grades, test scores and related intellectual indicators don’t change much for these students, and their grades often decline. However, nontraditional elite school pupils also face much lower risk of arrests and disciplinary incidents than they otherwise would. They gain access to social networks and cultural capital that they would not otherwise have had (which more affluent peers would have irrespective of where they attend school). And as a consequence, the “privileged poor” become much more eligible and appealing to elite gatekeepers irrespective of their academic “merits.”
But with respect to their “merits,” the truth is that students who graduate from elite schools are often far from stellar as scholars.
In his ethnographic study of a prestigious boarding school, sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan found that elite students don’t tend to work very hard or very long at their studies and often disdain those who do. They don’t typically strive to master the material from their courses. Instead, they rely heavily on SparkNotes to avoid doing the readings and virtually never do optional readings or ungraded assignments. Yet, none of this matters for their life trajectories because more important than the formal curriculum that students broadly neglect is the "hidden curriculum" that elite students generally do come to master at these schools: how to present oneself as knowledgeable, competent, poised and “naturally” talented even in the absence of substantive understanding or skill; how to tell a compelling story to elite gatekeepers in order to pique their interest and tug at their heartstrings; how to navigate institutional bureaucracies and rules, turning them to one’s advantage; how to take tests well; how to effectively socialize and network with (other) elites.
Students at elite schools tend to invest far more time and energy into cultivating their image, reputation and social ties than they do in cultivating their minds. But here’s the rub: it generally pays off well for them. Studies have found that graduates of elite K–12 schools who get into elite universities tend to be worse than average on the academic front. That is, they tend to be relatively weak students, not prodigious ones. Nonetheless, they tend to perform particularly well socioeconomically after graduation, especially relative to peers from less advantaged backgrounds who graduated from the same university and with higher GPAs. Why? Because while students from nonelite backgrounds tend to prioritize their academics when they get into top colleges, students from elite backgrounds spend much more time networking and socializing—and these latter behaviors tend to yield much higher career dividends in our ostensibly “meritocratic” system than actual talent or hard work.
Indeed, grades at elite schools are something of a joke. At both the K–12 and collegiate level, studies have found that educational institutions that cater to elites tend to grade far less harshly than most other colleges. And the divide has only grown: in recent decades, grades at high schools attended by more affluent students have shot up significantly (far more than at other institutions), even though scores on standardized tests and other proficiency exams have remained stagnant or declined. That is, elite students aren’t getting any better but their grades are. As a consequence, graduates of elite programs often look like meritocratically superior students on paper; their GPAs tend to be significantly higher. Yet this appearance is largely an artifact of the reality that less privileged students tend to be graded more closely according to their “merits,” while wealthy kids feel more or less entitled to good grades irrespective of their actual performance.
At contemporary elite colleges and universities, an A has become more or less the default grade. Bs are reserved for worse-than-average students who seem to be at least making a strong effort. Cs or below are assigned almost exclusively to students who aren’t really trying, and with the foreknowledge that parents and academic counselors (and sometimes higher-ups) will likely intercede to revise the grade upwards, irrespective of what the student may actually “deserve.” Implicit in these “grade-grubbing” interventions is the message that professors are not really there to decide who should and should not receive elite credentials—admissions has already done that. Our job is to carry out the magic of laundering students’ socioeconomic privilege into academic “merit” by assigning grades that match the luster of the elite credentials that students’ families (or future selves) are paying such immense sums to obtain.
Behind the Curtain
When the magic works as it’s supposed to, inequalities derived from differences in educational attainment and educational “quality” come to be viewed as natural and appropriate. They come to be seen as reflecting, first and foremost, the superior discipline, hard work and talent of those who manage to get degrees (and especially elite degrees) as compared to those who don’t. However, much like in The Wizard of Oz, there are moments where the veil of meritocracy gets pulled back, allowing everyone to clearly see the privilege laundering scheme underway.
In 2019, for instance, higher ed was rocked by a scandal that has come to be known as “Varsity Blues.” Dozens of parents were found to be working with a network of actors who were writing or aggressively editing admissions essays for prospective students, helping falsify involvement in athletics, taking standardized tests on behalf of students (or correcting the answers or otherwise providing assistance), connecting families to doctors who would provide fraudulent disability diagnoses for students, (re)taking online classes on students’ behalf in order to bolster their high school GPA, and more. Officials at nearly a dozen elite universities (including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown Universities, and some of the top institutions in the University of California system) were implicated in the conspiracy. What was striking, however, was the lengths that many parents went through to hide their malfeasance from their children.
In many cases, the students were not aware of the fraud being perpetuated on their behalf; parents took great pains to keep their children from noticing irregularities, and to present everything they were doing as perfectly normal. They explained away anything students viewed as unusual, sometimes in consultation with the people carrying out the scheme. And when the students were eventually accepted into their chosen colleges, they believed, and were encouraged to believe by their parents and everyone else, that they were accepted because they were simply better than the other applicants who were turned down. They were fundamentally “Harvard,” “Yale,” or “Stanford” material.
Communications exposed over the course of the trials that followed show that children were consistently shocked, horrified and depressed to find out that they were not, in fact, gifted or extraordinary, that they did not earn their position through merit, but instead almost purely through their parents’ wealth and connections (although some nonetheless fought to remain in their programs and to preserve any credentials or credits they’d accumulated). They had completely bought into the illusion that admission to elite colleges is a sign of merit rather than privilege. They are far from alone.
At top colleges such as Harvard, roughly a third of admitted students tend to be ALDC (that is, athletes or children of university alumni, wealthy donors or faculty and staff), a vast majority of whom would not have been admitted were it not for their ALDC status. Many others who get preferential acceptance on the basis of being “low income” or “first generation” likewise hail from wealthy and highly-educated families who exploited various loopholes and ambiguities to present a misleading picture of their backgrounds and circumstances without technically running afoul of the law. These maneuvers are likely to become more common still in a world where affirmative action has been banned, compelling colleges to rely on measures such as “adversity scores” and heart-rendering admissions essays to diversify the student body.
All said, the primary crime of the “Varsity Blues” families was not that they tried to buy and con their way into elite colleges. Their crime was trying to accomplish this feat through illicit means, meritocratic dark arts, rather than working through the ordained temple priests and their approved mystification rituals like all the other wealthy and well-connected people. Within elite media and academic circles, these families were ruthlessly mocked and derided. However, as Freud, Girard and others have revealed, the reason we hate, resent and villainize people is often not because they’re dramatically different from us but, rather, because they’re fundamentally the same. Higher ed reacted so negatively to the Varsity Blues scandal because it revealed something to the whole world that we’d rather not even recognize to ourselves: privilege laundering schemes are not the exception, they are the rule, perhaps even the telos, of the American educational system.