On February 12, President Obama declared that his administration was taking steps to address a crisis in American higher education: the sky-rocketing cost of tuition coupled with the significant unemployment rate for recent college graduates. He announced the creation of a College Scorecard that would rate schools based on "simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck".
Released online the next day, the College Scorecard drew criticism from education experts. Most noted that it was missing important information on employment rates and income levels for graduates of particular schools. But Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust had a different critique. After stating that the point of a college degree was not a "first job" but "a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change", she recounted her own experience.
She wrote in a letter to the New York Times:
I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and my first job was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. My starting salary was low, but I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty to regard public service as an important calling. I went on to graduate school, joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and ultimately became the president of Harvard University. Should Bryn Mawr have been judged based on what I was paid in my first year at HUD?
Faust's is an inspiring tale - and one beyond the comprehension of most young graduates in America today. "Don't trust the boomers!" warned Paul Campos in a 2012 article on the misguided advice the elder generation peddles to their underemployed, debt-ridden progeny - including gems like "higher education is always worth the price" and "internships lead to jobs" - and Faust's rebuke proves him right.
What is most remarkable about Faust's career is not its culmination in the Harvard presidency, but the system of accessibility and opportunity that allowed her to pursue it. Her life story is a eulogy for an America long since past.
Let's review what life was like for an American of Faust's generation. In 1968, when Faust graduated from Bryn Mawr, tuition and board at a four-year private university cost an average of $2,545. As the scion of a wealthy political family, it is doubtful Faust had to worry about affording tuition, but neither did most members of her generation, since the cost of attending college was relatively low. Today, Bryn Mawr costs $53,040 per year - more than the American median household income.
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In 1968, $2,545 was about the most you could expect to pay for college - most schools cost half as much, and many public universities were still free. Faust's generation graduated with little to no debt, unlike today's university graduate, who owes an average of $27,000. After graduating, Faust decided to pursue a life of public service and got a job - an actual, paying job, right out of college - with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The hippie movement reached its height in 1968, but it is perhaps difficult for the modern mind to comprehend the desire to "turn on, tune in and drop out" when such a novel option as post-college employment was available. Today's graduate seeking a career in government often winds up in an internship, where they work full-time for little to no pay.
In her article, "The Age of the Permanent Intern", journalist Hannah Seligson describes Jessica, a full-time intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre who was paid $4.35 an hour during her 10-month tenure. Despite simultaneously shelling out $50,000 per year for a graduate degree at American University, Jessica says she felt lucky, because without internships and an MA she had no chance at an entry-level job. Seligson reflects: "Talking to her, I wonder: When did 'lucky' become working for below minimum wage for months on end?"
Seligson is right: luck does not have much to do with it. In order to work the internship that is a requirement for entry in many fields, a young graduate requires substantial financial support as well as previous unpaid experience. "Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing 'enriching' internships or academic programmes," writes pundit Megan McArdle.
Participation in these programmes and internships is often dependent on personal wealth, resulting in a system of privilege that replicates itself over generations. McArdle compares America's eroded meritocracy to imperial China, noting that "the people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other 'elite' profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the post-war education system. A window that opened is closing".
But for Faust's baby boomer generation, the window was open, the opportunities there. Following the paid position she took after her four years of inexpensive college, Faust went on to get a PhD. She graduated in 1975, a year when over half of history PhDs could expect to find a job in their chosen field, and immediately landed a teaching position at the same university where she studied. Today, only 42.6 percent of history PhDs are employed upon graduation, and few in academia. Those who find jobs in higher education often work as low-paid adjuncts - a category that was miniscule in 1975, but now makes up roughly 70 percent of American faculty.
"Astronauts do not labour unpaid for years; the children of astronauts do not automatically become astronauts."
Like internships, adjunct positions are often necessary to advance professionally - but only the well-off can afford to work them without living in poverty or debt. The result is a professoriate of an increasingly uniform class background, much like the policy, finance and journalism circles McArdle describes. Mobility is but a memory. "The life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data," writes economist Joseph E Stiglitz in an editorial aptly titled "Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth".
To understand the repercussions of the current system, it is worth taking a look at another woman born in 1947, the same year as Faust. A few weeks ago, a meme began circulating on Facebook: "Hillary Clinton wrote to NASA as a child inquiring how to be an astronaut," it said. "NASA replied that girls could not be astronauts. So she became Secretary of State."
The meme served as a reminder that opportunities in the 1960s were far more limited for minorities and women than now - a point Faust, Harvard's first female president, has noted. It also meant to serve as inspiration for those told their dreams are denied. But while barriers based on race and gender have eased - to a degree, with still a long way to go - economic strictures have tightened, denying the dreams of a new generation.
One can argue that today the path to becoming an astronaut - one of the most notoriously difficult professions to enter - is more meritocratic for an individual of Clinton's middle-class background than the path to jobs in policy and other fields relying on upfront costs and nepotistic connections. Astronauts do not labour unpaid for years; the children of astronauts do not automatically become astronauts.
This is not to say that hard-working elites do not deserve their success, but that the greatest barrier to entry in many professions is financial, not intellectual. The ambition, hard work and idealism of women like the young Hillary Clinton have no currency in today's system, because only one type of currency - hard currency - counts.
One wonders how many future politicians, journalists, academics and leaders we are losing because they never have the chance to try. How many people from Hillary Clinton's middle-class background - or, for that matter, from Bill Clinton's rural poverty - can afford to tread the path of debt and unpaid labour required to succeed?
The "lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change" Drew Gilpin Faust extolled is something most Americans desire. But it is affordable only for a select few: the baby boomers who can buy their children opportunities as the system they created screws the rest.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.