No misdeed, no crime, no tragedy fills the op-ed pages of top American newspapers quicker than an elite college admissions scandal. Injustices surely more heinous happen every day, such that a cynic might begin to wonder if all those deeply personal expressions of indignation are less about systematic assaults on equality than they are about stolen valor.
The most insightful reflections on scandals like the recently uncovered cheating ring involving some indulgent celebrities go beyond anemic complaints about America’s winner-take-all ethos and instead call our attention the perfectly legal advantages wealthy students enjoy in the college admission process, from thinly veiled pay-to-play donation schemes to the employment of expensive tutors for college entrance exams. The solution—implied or otherwise—is to make admittance processes for top ranked schools more fair and transparent or else to tweak diversity policies a bit. These fixes are no doubt helpful at the individual level, but at the societal level they amount to little more than patronizing charity. No matter how well intended, this liberal approach to educational equality is doomed to self-contradiction.
The problem is not the way Ivy League schools admit students. The problem is Ivy League schools…or at least their place in our very limited collective imagination.
Even the most liberal vision of fair admission offers no better than the tyrant’s bargain that Henry VIII struck with his talented subjects: You can come from the humblest origins and rise to any height, just as long as you rise through me. It is worth remembering, for instance, the battle over Sonya Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination in 2009. Predictably, race took center stage in that debate, with politicians and pundits from the Right questioning her ability to be objective in cases involving Latinx people. But even the most vitriolic criticism was checked by her impressive résumé: a poor kid from the Bronx who made her way to Princeton and then to Yale. They had to admit that, at least on paper, she was qualified. Would her story have been any less impressive, would her nomination have been any less immune to charges of tokenism if she had come up through CUNY? With all nine sitting justices having earned their law degrees from one of just three schools, this scenario is unlikely to be tested any time soon.
In a society that truly prioritized equality in higher education this narrow gate to power would regarded as an anachronism, like primogeniture.
Like socialist Sweden, the United States already has perfectly good solutions to the problem of inequality in higher education: they’re called regional public universities. And their revolutionary potential is immense. The difference is that in the U.S., these institutions are withering on the vine. I received my education a couple of them in the American Midwest, and I now teach at one in the middle of Sweden. Each of them more unremarkable than the next. All of them great. Not great in spite of being unremarkable but because of it. They don’t stake their reputations on the students they admit; they have no reputations to stake. It is the nation that stakes its reputation on the schools, the idea being that societies—not a few well-heeled institutions—produce remarkable people. To be sure, Swedish commitment to this ideal is not always abiding. Proud Swedes would be loath to admit it, but they’ve got their share of baseless belief in the naturalness of school hierarchies too. That belief, however, doesn’t approach the near-religious fervor it takes on in the U.S. Which is why, again, in addressing the problem of higher education and inequality, the only imaginable solution is to make elite schools a little more meritocratic.
There is, of course, the argument for tuition-free college education, which is finally getting some traction in the U.S. This makes all the difference in Sweden. It’s everything you’d expect: debt-free graduates begin their professional lives with economic independence; students are not forced to choose between taking a financial risk and an intellectual risk in the course of study they select; without hazarding ruin, adults in the workforce can take a break and go back to school, enabling them to adapt to a changing labor market. But there’s also the matter of geography. Schools here are funded by the number of students they enroll, but that is not the same as the arms war for tuition dollars which consumes even regional public institutions in the U.S. (a great instance of market competition failing to determine the right price for a product). Young Swedes need not scramble to find the school currently offering the best reduction from sticker price or get lured away by shady athletic scholarships. This makes a big difference for students in surrounding rural areas, students from local immigrant communities still helping to support their families, and single parents who rely on a family network. They may choose to study elsewhere to specialize in particular subject, but first option is to attend the university in their own region. The result is not just greater financial security but a better geographical distribution of opportunity and talent. Sweden is not there yet, but it’s the beginning of a kind of fairness that could eliminate the perceived necessity for top schools. The cream would still rise to the top. It’s just a matter of reimagining where the top exists.
I could go on. The point is that the systematic neglect of public higher education in America and the national obsession with the fairness of elite school admissions are not separate issues. Ideologically, it’s a zero sum gain. The more we tie equality of opportunity to notions of fairness in elite schools—the more necessary fairness seems in that context—the more necessary it seems to maintain the outsized status of those institutions. And the less necessary public education seems. And the harder it gets to imagine what is really fair.
Every editorial decrying the latest Ivy League admissions scandal is one less outrage over the closing/consolidation of UW-Fox Valley, and so on. We just don’t have the bandwidth.