America’s universities and their role in a country at war with itself

Several new books are asking whether it is fair that ostensibly meritocratic societies have handed such extensive power to a small clutch of academic institutions, such as Stanford © New York Times/Redux /eyevine

America’s elite universities have long been the envy of the world. US institutions have the five largest endowments, hold 8 of the top 10 positions in The Times Higher Education ranking of world universities and dominate many of the subject listings put out by Shanghai Ranking.

But closer to home, the US higher education system is under attack from many quarters. Conservatives charge that college campuses have become hotbeds of “woke” ideology; liberals complain that low-income and minority students are still poorly served and shunted away from good schools and top degrees that qualify them for lucrative jobs. So many students leave university laden with crippling debt that President Joe Biden recently announced a $20,000 loan forgiveness programme that has become a central issue in next month’s midterm elections for Congress.

In a country at war with itself, universities are ground zero. Their research and cultural influence have been building blocks of the west’s success, but now critics argue that the sector is rotting American society from within.

On Monday, Harvard University, the country’s oldest and probably best known institution, will be in the dock at the Supreme Court, facing a legal challenge to the way it selects its undergraduates. The plaintiffs contend that the university illegally favours black and Hispanic students at the expense of Asian-American applicants in a misguided attempt to promote diversity. They want the justices to ban Harvard and higher education more broadly from considering race at all.

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

What both sides share is a belief that access to an elite university education is critical for anyone who wants to climb the ladder to social and corporate success. This assumption is mirrored across the world. My parents bought into it — they delayed saving for their retirement to send me to the Ivy League debt-free. It is why middle class British parents are obsessed with Oxbridge admissions, and why French populists decry the power of the grand écoles.

Now several new and thoughtful books are asking whether it is fair that ostensibly meritocratic societies have handed such extensive power to a small clutch of academic institutions. Though each comes at the question differently, they all conclude that the winner take all approach to tertiary 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 to both America’s elite and its striving lower and middle classes. His book attempts to demolish claims by the most prestigious US schools that they dedicate their tax breaks, gigantic endowments and selective admissions for the greater good.

He marshals statistics and personal stories to show that the top schools mostly educate rich people and steer them into lucrative careers that equip them to send their children and donations back to their alma maters. Sixty-three per cent of Harvard’s 2020 graduates went into finance, consulting or technology, he reports. By contrast, about 60 per cent of John Jay students work for the government or a not-for-profit organisation. “Elite colleges are exceptionally good at keeping rich kids rich,” writes Mandery.

While the few poor students who attend rich colleges see an increase in social mobility, the impact is small. Three CUNY colleges lead the nation in economic mobility: at least 10 per cent of graduates move from the lowest quintile in income to the top quintile; Harvard and Princeton fail to crack 2 per cent.

Mandery also explores the struggles of low income students who do win admission to the elite schools. Among them is Brianna Suslovic, who spends most of freshman year “frantic about how we’d get cash” and then is pilloried on social media for “wealth shaming” after she refers to a classmate’s conversation about her “British au pair” as “bougie”.

He argues that US parents choose everything from where to live to the sports their children play with one eye on college admission prospects. By the time Americans reach age 18, many have already fallen off what Mandery calls “the escalator” to economic advancement.

Addressing the resulting inequalities requires more than the racial considerations now before the Supreme Court, Mandery contends. Real harm is being done by the preferences that most universities give to the children of donors and alumni, and to students who play elite sports. Giving those up would strip affluent whites of their familial advantages and force them to confront the injustices they perpetuate with monster donations to already rich institutions, Mandery argues.

“Donating $1.8bn to Johns Hopkins University is generous but not just. Helping the smart kid from your Yale freshman seminar land a summer internship is generous but not just,” he writes. “It’s impossible to preach charity while hoarding.”

Adam Harris, a staff writer for The Atlantic, is also concerned about inequality within higher education but his focus is on race rather than economics in The State Must Provide, which has just come out in paperback. This vividly written history of segregation in US higher education includes the story of Lloyd Gaines, the sharecropper’s son who disappeared without a trace after fighting to the Supreme Court for the right to go to law school in Missouri. It also delves into the 19th century founding of integrated colleges such as Oberlin and Berea, and the lengths to which southern states and their flagship institutions went to avoid giving equal access to black students.

Harris documents the myriad ways racism continues to limit educational opportunities for most black Americans, those who cannot squeeze through the narrow keyhole into the Ivy League. The lasting impact of skewed funding formulas and other chicanery are made visible through Harris’s experiences as a student in the 2010s. While his historically black campus, Alabama A&M, was so starved of funds that potholes went unfilled and broken elevators unfixed, the mainly white campus across town, the University of Alabama at Huntsville, had up-to-date dormitories, libraries that stayed open three hours longer and periodicals that Harris had never heard of, let alone read.

Like the other two authors, Will Bunch doesn’t pull punches about the disturbing links between higher education and inequality. In After the Ivory Tower Falls, he calls the current structure “a fake meritocracy rigged to make half of America hate it”. A left-leaning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he focuses on how the vast expansion of educational opportunity after the second world war went badly wrong, leaving Americans saddled with student loans. Some economists blame the $1.7tn debt pile for slowing growth, delayed family formation as well as populist anger.

His punchy narrative argues that the rising share of Americans who went to college and its failure to pay off for many of them is the root of many important US developments of the past 75 years. Bunch pulls in events from across the political spectrum, from the 1960s civil rights movement and the 1980s rise of rightwing radio to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of the 2010s and recent scepticism of vaccines.

Some of it feels a bit overdone but Bunch convincingly drills into the betrayal felt by people who took on debt to pay for “beer and circuses” at state universities but failed to land solid middle-class jobs. Their anger at being talked down to by “experts” with better degrees is palpable and dangerous. “We missed the moment to make higher education a public trust that would benefit all American society through economic invention, civic engagement and general enlightenment. Instead, we privatised college and called it a meritocracy so that it could be rigged for the winners while the perceived losers are mocked and ridiculed,” Bunch laments.

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

But I am not sure that this will spread nearly far or fast enough to make a difference. Exclusivity sells, as anyone who has 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 bribery to get their children into Stanford, Georgetown and other top schools?

Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide 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 Set Them Right by Adam Harris, Ecco, $27.99/ £27.99, 272 pages

After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It by Will Bunch, William Morrow, $28.99, 320 pages

Brooke Masters is the FT’s US investment and industries editor

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