US higher education: A system of meritocracy that never was

The recent college bribing scandal in the US revealed nothing we already didn’t know.

Anti-affirmative action Reuters
File: Anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum speaks to reporters about his claims that Harvard University is discriminating against Asian-Americans, October 14, 2018 [File:Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Earlier this month, a $25m fraud scheme which helped children of wealthy parents cheat their way into top American universities was unearthed by US prosecutors. As part of the investigation into the scheme, dozens of well-to-do parents, including Hollywood celebrities, have since been indicted for paying millions of dollars in bribes, arranging to falsify their children’s college entrance exam scores, and misrepresenting their athletic abilities to secure admission to elite universities by fraudulent means.

The revelations caused shock and outrage across the world, but they should not have. The scandal revealed nothing new. One of the worst-kept secrets of American education is that it is a rigged system. The deck is stacked in favour of the wealthy, who can buy the best education possible for their children, and at the expense of those without means, power or privilege.

Education in the US is a heavily privatised, for-profit scheme that excludes low-income people and members of disadvantaged racial groups, and only reinforces the existing socioeconomic inequities.

We all pretend the higher education system in the United States is based on meritocracy. American mythology dictates that in the land of opportunity, all people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, work hard and achieve the American dream. Yet, what can one possibly do if he or she was born without boots? Those fortunate individuals who inherit resources, wealth, social capital and pedigree accumulated over generations enjoy a distinctly unfair advantage over poor students, who must work while studying or take out exorbitant amounts of loans to pay for fees.

The US is witnessing a student debt crisis with a record $1.53 trillion in outstanding debt – a figure which has more than doubled since the end of the 2009 recession, and exceeds the nation’s one trillion dollars in credit card debt. As a result, young people are saddled with a fortune in debt they are unable to pay off with low-paying or non-existent jobs, forced for years to forego buying a house, getting married or starting a family.

Wealthy students benefit from privilege compounded by more privilege, crowding out the rest from university spots. Many universities give preferences to legacy admits, students with at least one parent who graduated from the institution – a policy that overwhelmingly benefits privileged, white candidates.

Harvard, my alma mater, accepts 34 percent of legacy applicants, as opposed to six percent of non-legacy applicants, a nearly six-fold advantage. While over one-fifth of white admits to Harvard were legacies in recent years, only 4.8 percent of black admitted students, seven percent of Latinx students and 6.6 percent of Asian students were legacies, with the total number of white legacies surpassing all legacies of colour combined. Some 14 percent of Harvard’s class of 2022 are children of alumni, and over 29 percent have family ties to the school. Legacies are a significant portion of other university classes such as Yale (11 percent), Princeton (14 percent), the University of Southern California (16 percent), and the University of Notre Dame (22 percent).

Despite the ubiquity of legacy admissions, opponents of diversity and inclusion programmes in higher education focus instead on affirmative action for underrepresented students of colour. Students for Fair Admissions has waged a lawsuit against Harvard’s affirmative action programme on the grounds that it advantages black and Latinx students at the expense of Asian-American students.

Racial justice advocates argue that a cynical game of pitting various non-white groups against each other and positioning Asians as more deserving than other brown or black students will only benefit existing systems of white privilege. In 2017, for the first time in its 400-year history Harvard admitted a majority non-white class, and perhaps, that is part of the problem for some.

Increased economic inequality in America only exacerbates the economic segregation of schools and dims the prospects of success for low-income children, who are funnelled into under-resourced two-year community colleges rather than competitive four-year colleges.

Public primary and secondary education in the US depends substantially on property taxes for about one-third of its funding. Consequently, wealthier white enclaves have $23bn more in resources to devote to their schools, and are able to carve out their own racially exclusive school districts. Poor disproportionately black and brown communities are underfunded, particularly if states do not intervene to rectify the imbalance among school districts.

As a report published by Brookings Institution has noted: “Segregated housing and schools, gerrymandered districts and voter suppression picked up where Jim Crow left off. Housing ghettos are born of racist housing policies that rob the black community of opportunities to amass wealth.” In 2011, a black mother was imprisoned for falsifying her daughter’s address to allow her to attend an affluent, predominantly white school

Elite education creates an inherent tension between meritocracy and equal opportunity and Stuyvesant High School, the most exclusive of the eight specialised public high schools in New York City, is a good illustration of this phenomenon.

Earlier this month, the school announced its admissions for the next school year; it admitted only seven black students out of 895. Black students are one percent of the school population, with Latinx students at three percent, whites at 20 percent and Asian students at 73 percent, in a city in which black and Latinx students are 70 percent.

At issue is the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), an entrance examination which is the sole criterion for admission, which some students prepare for months or years, sometimes hiring tutors to gain an advantage. The exam contains material that is not taught in schools, raising questions regarding its validity and calls to reform the admissions process and eliminate or change the test.

High-stakes standardised testing in the US has its origins in racial bias. A century ago, the eugenics movement, which wanted to uphold the superiority of the white race were concerned the “infiltration” of inferior non-white people, “Negroes”, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews and others would dilute the superior genetic intelligence of the Anglo-Saxon stock. They developed IQ tests to maintain the existing racial and class hierarchy. 

Psychologist Carl Bingham was very much influenced by these ideas when he helped develop the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the leading college entrance exam in the US. The SAT is an exam that, according to critics, does not predict college success or determine merit, contains questions that advantage white students, and is designed to create inequality and profit the testing industry.

It is ironic, or perhaps fitting, that rich white parents paid bribes to cheat on a test already designed to favour their children, while the SAT score of a black Florida student was invalidated recently for being too high.

The Trump administration – supported by many adherents to the white supremacist conspiracy theory that whites are threatened with extinction due to an assault by inferior people of colour through immigration, affirmative action and demographic changes – is in favour of ending affirmative action and has eliminated Obama-era measures promoting diversity in education.

President Donald Trump has presided over the undermining of the US education system through the gutting of civil rights protections, the underfunding of public education, and the facilitation of the economic exploitation of students by education profiteers. The president’s 2019 budget would cut the Department of Education budget by $7.1bn and eliminate 29 programmes such as afterschool and summer school for low-income children, bringing even more entrenchment to America’s unequal education along racial and socioeconomic lines.

African American parents have always told their children they must work twice as hard to get half as much. The problem is that with the current state of regressive politics in the US, our children’s children will likely have to hear the same words, unless we take urgent action.

As Drake University Law Professor Vinay Harpalani told me in a recent conversation with me on the topic of education: “As practiced in America today, meritocracy is largely hypocrisy. This hypocrisy is a product of elitism itself: the need to create very stark status differences. We need to think very critically about our notions not only meritocracy, but also of equal opportunity. Perhaps the most effective way to create equal opportunity is to address America’s obsession with status – an obsession which actually values inequality and justifies it under the guise of meritocracy and equal opportunity.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.