This post is a paper I wrote last summer and presented at the University of Oslo in August. It’s a patchwork quilt of three previously published pieces around a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately: the role of US higher education — for better and for worse — in creating the new American aristocracy of merit.
In it I explore the way that systems of formal schooling both opened up opportunity for people to get ahead by individual merit and created the most effective structure ever devised for reproducing social inequality. By defining merit as the accumulation of academic credentials and by constructing a radically stratified and extraordinarily opaque hierarchy of educational institutions for granting these credentials, the system grants an enormous advantage to the children of those who have already negotiated the system most effectively.
The previous generation of academic winners learned its secrets and decoded its inner logic. They found out that it’s the merit badges that matter, not the amount of useful learning you acquire along the way. So they coach their children in the art of gaming the system. The result is that these children not only gain a huge advantage at winning the rewards of the meritocracy but also acquire a degree of legitimacy for these rewards that no previous system of inherited privilege ever attained. They triumphed in a meritocratic competition, so they fully earned the power, money, and position that they derived from it. Gotta love a system that can pull that off.
Here’s a PDF of the paper.
U.S. Higher Education and Inequality:
How the Solution Became the Problem
David F. Labaree
Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus
Lecture delivered at University of Oslo
August 14, 2019
One of the glories of the emergence of modernity is that it offered the possibility and even the ideal that social position could be earned rather than inherited. Instead of being destined to become a king or a peasant by dictate of paternity, for the first time in history individuals had the opportunity to attain their roles in society on the basis of merit. And in this new world, public education became both the avenue for opportunity and the arbiter of merit. But one of the anomalies of modernity is that school-based meritocracy, while increasing the fluidity of status attainment, has had little effect on the degree of inequality in modern societies.
In this paper, I explore how the structure of schooling helped bring about this outcome in the United States, with special focus on the evolution of higher education in the twentieth century. The core issue driving the evolution of this structure is that the possibility for social mobility works at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, with one group seeing the chance of rising up and the other facing the threat of falling down. As a result, the former sees school as the way for their children to gain access to higher position while the latter sees it as the way for their children to preserve the social position they were born with. Under pressure from both sides, the structure of schooling needs to find a way to accommodate these two contradictory aims. In practice the system can accomplish this by allowing children from families at the bottom and the top to both increase their educational attainment beyond the level of their parents. In theory this means that both groups can gain academic credentials that allow them to qualify for higher level occupational roles than the previous generation. They can therefore both move up in parallel, gaining upward mobility without reducing the social distance between them. Thus you end up with more opportunity without more equality.
Theoretically, it would be possible for the system to reduce or eliminate the degree to which elites manage to preserve their advantage through education simply by imposing a ceiling on the educational attainment allowed for their children. That way, when the bottom group rises they get closer to the top group. As a matter of practice, that option is not available in the U.S. As the most liberal of liberal democracies, the U.S. sees any such limits on the choices of the upper group as a gross violation of individual liberty. The result is a peculiar dynamic that has governed the evolution of the structure of American education over the years. The pattern is this. The out-group exerts political pressure in order to gain greater educational credentials for their children while the in-group responds by increasing the credentials of their own children. The result is that both groups move up in educational qualifications at the same time. Schooling goes up but social gaps remain the same. It’s an elevator effect. Every time the floor rises, so does the ceiling.
In the last 200 years of the history of schooling in the United States, the dynamic has played out like this. At the starting point, one group has access to a level of education that is denied to another group. The outsiders exert pressure to gain access to this level, which democratic leaders eventually feel compelled to grant. But the insiders feel threatened by the loss of social advantage that greater access would bring, so they press to preserve that advantage. How does the system accomplish this? Through two simple mechanisms. First, at the level where access is expanding, it stratifies schooling into curricular tracks or streams. This means that the newcomers fill the lower tracks while the old-timers occupy the upper tracks. Second, for the previously advantaged group it expands access to schooling at the next higher level. So the system expands access to one level of schooling while simultaneously stratifying that level and opening up the next level.
This process has gone through three cycles in the history of U.S. schooling. When the common school movement created a system of universal elementary schooling in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it also created a selective public high school at the top of the system. The purpose of the latter was to draw upper-class children from private schools into the public system by offering access to the high school only to graduates of the public grammar schools. Without the elite high school as inducement, public schooling would have been left the domain for paupers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century, elementary grades filled up and demand increased for wider access to high school, so the system opened the doors to this institution. But at the same it introduced curriculum tracks and set off a surge of college enrollments by the former high school students. And when high schools themselves filled by the middle of the twentieth century, the system opened access to higher education by creating a range of new nonselective colleges and universities to absorb the influx. This preserved the exclusivity of the older institutions, whose graduates in large numbers then started pursuing postgraduate degrees.
Result: A Very Stratified System of Higher Education
By the middle of the twentieth century, higher education was the zone of advantage for any American trying to get ahead or stay ahead. And as a result of the process by which the tertiary system managed to incorporate both functions, it became extraordinarily stratified. This was a system that emerged without a plan, based not on government fiat but the competing interests of educational consumers seeking to use it to their own advantage. A market-oriented system of higher education such as this one has a special dynamic that leads to a high degree of stratification. Each educational enterprise competes with the others to establish a position in the market that will allow it to draw students, generate a comfortable surplus, and maintain this situation over time. The problem is that, given the lack of effective state limits on the establishment and expansion of colleges, these schools find themselves in a buyer’s market. Individual buyers may want one kind of program over another, which gives colleges an incentive to differentiate the market horizontally to accommodate these various demands. At the same time, however, buyers want a college diploma that will help them get ahead socially. This means that consumers don’t just want a college education that is different; they want one that is better – better at providing access to good jobs. In response to this consumer demand, the U.S. has developed a multi-tiered hierarchy of higher education, ranging from open-access institutions at the bottom to highly exclusive institutions at the top, with each of the upper tier institutions offering graduates a degree that provides invidious distinction over graduates from schools in the lower tiers.
This stratified structure of higher education arose in the nineteenth century in a dynamic market system, where the institutional actors had to operate according to four basic rules. Rule One: Age trumps youth. It’s no accident that the oldest American colleges are overrepresented in the top tier. Of the top 20 U.S. universities, 19 were founded before 1900 and 7 before 1776, even though more than half of all American universities were founded in the twentieth century. Before competitors had entered the field, the oldest schools had already established a pattern of training the country’s leaders, locked up access to the wealthiest families, accumulated substantial endowments, and hired the most capable faculty.
Rule Two: The strongest rewards go to those at the top of the system. This means that every college below the top has a strong incentive to move up the ladder, and that top colleges have a strong incentive to preserve their advantage. Even though it is very difficult for lower-level schools to move up, this doesn’t keep them from trying. Despite long odds, the possible payoff is big enough that everyone stays focused on the tier above. A few major success stories allow institutions to keep their hopes alive. University presidents lie awake at night dreaming of replicating the route to the top followed by social climbers like Berkeley, Hopkins, Chicago, and Stanford.
Rule Three: It pays to imitate your betters. As the research university emerged as the model for the top tier in American higher education in the twentieth century, it became the ideal toward which all other schools sought to move. To get ahead you needed to offer a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, selective admissions and professors who publish, a football stadium and Gothic architecture. (David Riesman called this structure of imitation “the academic procession.”) Of course, given the advantages enjoyed by the top tier, imitation has rarely produced the desired results. But it’s the only game in town. Even if you don’t move up in the rankings, you at least help reassure your school’s various constituencies that they are associated with something that looks like and feels like a real university.
Rule Four: It’s best to expand the system by creating new colleges rather than increasing enrollments at existing colleges. Periodically new waves of educational consumers push for access to higher education. Initially, existing schools expanded to meet the demand, which meant that as late as 1900 Harvard was the largest U.S. university, public or private. But beyond this point in the growth process, it was not in the interest of existing institutions to provide wider access. Concerned about protecting their institutional advantage, they had no desire to sully their hard-won distinction by admitting the unwashed. Better to have this kind of thing done by additional colleges created for that purpose. The new colleges emerged, then, as a clearly designated lower tier in the system, defined as such by both their newness and their accessibility.
Think about how these rules have shaped the historical process that produced the present stratified structure of higher education. This structure has four tiers. In line with Rule One, these tiers from top to bottom emerged in roughly chronological order. The Ivy League colleges emerged in the colonial period, followed by a series of flagship state colleges in the early and mid-nineteenth century. These institutions, along with a few social climbers that emerged later, grew to form the core of the elite research universities that make up the top tier of the system. Schools in this tier are the most influential, prestigious, well-funded, exclusive, research-productive, and graduate-oriented – in the U.S. and in the world.
The second tier emerged from the land grant colleges that began appearing in the mid to late nineteenth century. They were created to fill a need not met by existing institutions, expanding access for a broader array of students and offering programs with practical application in areas like agriculture and engineering. They were often distinguished from the flagship research university by the word “state” in their title (as with University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University) or the label “A & M” (for Agricultural and Mechanical, as with University of Texas vs. Texas A & M). But, in line with Rules Two and Three, they responded to consumer demand by quickly evolving into full service colleges and universities; and in the twentieth century they adopted the form and function of the research university, albeit in a more modest manner.
The third tier arose from the normal schools, established in the late nineteenth century to prepare teachers. Like the land grant schools that preceded them, these narrowly vocational institutions evolved quickly under pressure from consumers, who wanted them to model themselves after the schools in the top tiers by offering a more valuable set of credentials that would provide access to a wider array of social opportunities. Under these market pressures, normal schools evolved into teachers colleges, general-purpose state colleges, and finally, by the 1960s, comprehensive regional state universities.
The fourth tier emerged in part from the junior colleges that first arose in the early twentieth century and eventually evolved into an extensive system of community colleges. Like the land grant college and normal school, these institutions offered access to a new set of students at a lower level of the system. Unlike their predecessors, for the most part they have not been allowed by state governments to imitate the university model, remaining primarily as two-year schools. But through the transfer option, many students use them as a more accessible route into institutions in the upper tiers.
What This Means for Educational Consumers
This highly stratified system is very difficult for consumers to navigate. Instead of allocating access to the top level of the system using the mechanism employed by most of the rest of the world – a state-administered university matriculation exam – the highly decentralized American system allocates access by means of informal mechanisms that in comparison seem anarchic. In the absence of one access route, there are many; and in the absence of clear rules for prospective students, there are multiple and conflicting rules of thumb. Also, the rules of thumb vary radically according to which tier of the system you are seeking to enter.
First, let’s look at the admissions process for families (primarily the upper-middle class) who are trying to get their children entrée to the elite category of highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities. They have to take into account the wide array of factors that enter into the complex and opaque process that American colleges use to select students at this level: quality of high school; quality of a student’s program of study; high school grades; test scores in the SAT or ACT college aptitude tests; interests and passions expressed in an application essay; parents’ alumni status; whether the student needs financial aid; athletic skills; service activities; diversity factors such as race, ethnicity, class, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation; and extracurricular contributions a student might make to the college community. There is no centralized review process; instead every college carries out its own admissions review and employs its own criteria.
This open and indeterminate process provides a huge advantage for upper-middle-class families. If you are a parent who is a college graduate and who works at a professional or managerial job, where the payoff of going to a good college is readily apparent, you have the cultural and social capital to negotiate this system effectively and read its coded messages. For you, going to college is not the issue; it’s a matter of which college your children can get into that would provide them with the greatest competitive advantage in the workplace. You want for them the college that might turn them down rather than the one that would welcome them with open arms. So you enroll your children in test prep; hire a college advisor; plan out a strategic plan for high school course-taking and extracurriculars; craft a service resume that makes them look appropriately public-spirited; take them on the obligatory college tour; and come up with just the right mix of applications to the stretch schools, the safety schools, and those in between. And all this pays off handsomely: 77 percent of children from families in the top quintile by income gain a bachelor’s degree.
If you are a parent farther down the class scale, who didn’t attend college and whose own work environment is not well stocked with college graduates, you have a lot more trouble negotiating the system. The odds are not good: for students from the fourth income quintile, only 17 percent earn a BA, and for the lowest quintile the rate is only 9 percent. Under these circumstances, having your child go to a college, any college, is a big deal; and one college is hard to distinguish from another. But you are faced by a system that offers an extraordinary diversity of choices for prospective students: public, not-for-profit, or for-profit; secular or religious; two-year or four-year; college or university; teaching or research oriented; massive or tiny student body; vocational or liberal; division 1, 2, or 3 intercollegiate athletics, or no sports at all; party school or nerd haven; high rank or low rank; full-time or part-time enrollment; urban or pastoral; gritty or serene; residential, commuter, or “suitcase college” (where students go home on weekends). In this complex setting both consumers and providers somehow have to make choices that are in their own best interest. Families from the upper-middle class are experts at negotiating this system, trimming the complexity down to a few essentials: a four-year institution that is highly selective and preferably private (not-for-profit). Everything else is optional.
If you’re a working-class family, however – lacking deep knowledge of the system and without access to the wide array of support systems that money can buy – you are more likely to take the system at face value. Having your children go to a community college is the most obvious and attractive option. It’s close to home, inexpensive, and easy to get into. It’s where your children’s friends will be going, it allows them to work and go to school part time, and it doesn’t seem as forbiddingly alien as the state university (much less the Ivies). You don’t need anything to gain admission except a high school diploma or GED. No tests, counselors, tours, or resume-burnishing is required. Of you could try the next step up, the local comprehensive state university. To apply for admission, all you need is a high school transcript. You might get turned down, but the odds are in your favor. The cost is higher but can usually be paid with federal grants and loans. An alternative is a for-profit institution, which is extremely accessible, flexible, and often online. It’s not cheap, but federal grants and loans can pay the cost. What you don’t have any way of knowing is that the most accessible colleges at the bottom of the system are also the ones where students are least likely to graduate. (Only 29 percent of students entering two-year colleges earn an associate degree in three years; only 39 percent earn a degree from a two-year or four-year institution in six years.) You also may not be aware that the economic payoff for these colleges is lower; or that the colleges higher up the system may not only provide stronger support toward graduation and but might even be less expensive because of greater scholarship funding.
In this way, the complexity and opacity of this market-based and informally-structured system helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom. It’s a system that rewards the insider knowledge of old hands and punishes newcomers. To work it effectively, you need reject the fiction that a college is a college is a college and learn how seek advantage in the system’s upper tiers.
On the other hand, the system’s fluidity is real. The absence of state-sanctioned and formally structured tracks means that the barriers between the system’s tiers are permeable. Your children’s future is not predetermined by their high school curriculum or their score on the matriculation exam. They can apply to any college they want and see what happens. Of course, if their grades and scores are not great, their chances of admission to upper level institutions are poor. But their chances of getting into a teaching-oriented state university are pretty good, and their chances of getting into a community college are virtually assured. And if they take the latter option, as is most often the case for children from socially disadvantaged families, there is a real (if modest) possibility that they might be able to prove their academic chops, earn an AA degree, and transfer to a university, even a research university. The probabilities of moving up in the system are low: most community college students never earn an AA degree; and transfers have a harder time succeeding in the university than students who enroll there as freshmen. But the possibilities are nonetheless genuine.
American higher education offers something for everyone. It helps those at the bottom to get ahead and those at the top to stay ahead. It provides socially useful educational services for every ability level and every consumer preference. This gives it an astonishingly broad base of political support across the entire population, since everyone needs it and everyone can potentially benefit from it. And this kind of legitimacy is not possible if the opportunity the system offers to the lower classes is a simple fraud. First generation college students, even if they struggled in high school, can attend community college, transfer to San Jose State, and end up working at Apple. It’s not very likely, but it assuredly is possible. True, the more advantages you bring to the system – cultural capital, connections, family wealth – the higher the probability that you will succeed in it. But even if you are lacking in these attributes, there is still an outside chance that you just might make it through the system and emerge with a good middle class job.
This helps explain how the system gets away with preserving social advantage for those at the top without stirring a revolt from those at the bottom. Students from working-class and lower-class families are much less likely to be admitted to the upper reaches of the higher education system that provides the greatest social rewards; but the opportunity to attend some form of college is high, and attending a college at the lower levels of the system may provide access to a good job. The combination of high access to the lower levels of the system and high attrition on the way to attaining a bachelor’s degree creates a situation where the system gets credit for openness and the student bears the burden for failing to capitalize on it. The system gave you a chance but you just couldn’t make the grade. The ready-made explanations for personal failure accumulate quickly as students try to move through the system. You didn’t study hard enough, you didn’t get good grades in high school, you didn’t get good test scores, so you couldn’t get into a selective college. Instead you went to a community college, where you got distracted from your studies by work, family, and friends, and you didn’t have the necessary academic ability; so you failed to complete your AA degree. Or maybe you did complete the degree and transferred to a university, but you had trouble competing with students who were more able and better prepared than you. Along with the majority of students who don’t make it all the way to a BA, you bear the burden for your failure – a conclusion that is reinforced by the occasional but highly visible successes of a few of your peers. The system is well defended against charges of unfairness.
So we can understand why people at the bottom don’t cry foul. It gave you a chance. And there is one more reason for keeping up your hope that education will pay off for you. A degree from an institution in a lower tier may pay lower benefits, but for some purposes one degree really is as good as another. Often the question in getting a job or a promotion is not whether you have a classy credential but whether you have whatever credential is listed as the minimum requirement in the job description. Bureaucracies operate on a level where form often matters more than substance. As long as you can check off the box confirming that you have a bachelor’s degree, the BA from University of Phoenix and the BA from University of Pennsylvania can serve the same function, by allowing you to be considered for the job. And if, say, you’re a public school teacher, an MA from Capella University, under the district contract, is as effective as one from Stanford University, because either will qualify you for a $5,000 bump in pay.
At the same time, however, we can see why the system generates so much anxiety among students who are trying to use the system to move up the social ladder for the good life. It’s really the only game in town for getting a good job in twenty-first century America. Without higher education, you are closed off from the white collar jobs that provide the most security and pay. Yes, you could try to start a business, or you could try to work your way up the ladder in an organization without a college degree; but the first approach is highly risky and the second is highly unlikely, since most jobs come with minimum education requirements regardless of experience. So you have to put all of your hopes in the higher-ed basket while knowing – because of your own difficult experiences in high school and because of what you see happening with family and friends – that your chances for success are not good. You either you choose to pursue higher ed against the odds or you simply give up. It’s a situation fraught with anxiety.
What is less obvious, however, is why the American system of higher education – which is so clearly skewed in favor of people at the top of the social order – fosters so much anxiety in them. Upper-middle-class families in the U.S. are obsessed with education and especially with getting their children into the right college. Why? They live in the communities that have the best public schools; their children have cultural and social skills that schools value and reward; and they can afford the direct cost and opportunity cost of sending their high school grads to a residential college, even one of the pricey privates. So why are there only a few colleges that seem to matter to this group? Why does it matter so much to have your child not only get into the University of California but into Berkeley or UCLA? What’s wrong with having them attend Santa Cruz or even one of the Cal State campuses? And why the overwhelming passion for pursuing admission to Harvard or Yale?
The urgency behind all such frantic concern about admission to the most elite level of the system is this: As parents of privilege, you can pass on your wealth to your children, but you can’t give them a profession. Education is built into the core of modern societies, where occupations are no longer inherited but more or less earned. If you’re a successful doctor or lawyer, you can provide a lot of advantages for your children; but in order for them to gain a position such as yours, they must succeed in school, get into a good college, and then into a good graduate school. Unless they own the company, even business executives can’t pass on position to their children, and even then it’s increasingly rare that they would actually do so. (Like most shareholders, they would profit more by having the company led by a competent executive than by the boss’s son.) Under these circumstances of modern life, providing social advantage to your children means providing them with educational advantage. Parents who have been through the process of climbing the educational hierarchy in order to gain prominent position in the occupational hierarchy know full well what it takes to make the grade.
They also know something else: When you’re at the top of the social system, there is little opportunity to rise higher but plenty of opportunity to fall farther down. Consider data on intergenerational mobility in the U.S. For children of parents in the top quintile by household income, 60 percent end up at least one quintile lower than their parents and 37 fall at least two quintiles. That’s a substantial decline in social position. So there’s good reason for these parents to fear downward mobility for their children and to use all their powers to marshal educational resources to head it off. The problem is this: Even though your own children have a wealth of advantages in negotiating the educational system, there are still enough bright and ambitious students from the lower classes who manage to make it through the educational gauntlet to pose them a serious threat. So you need to make sure that your children attend the best schools, get into the high reading group and the program for the gifted, take plenty of advanced placement classes, and then get into a highly selective college and graduate school. Leave nothing to chance, since some of your heirs are likely to be less talented and ambitious than those children who prove themselves against all odds by climbing the educational ladder. When the higher education system opened up access after World War II, it made competition for the top tier of the system sharply higher, and the degree of competitiveness continued to increase as the proportion of students going to college grew to a sizeable majority. As Jerome Karabel has noted in his study of elite college admissions, the American system of higher education does not equalize opportunity but it does equalize anxiety. It makes families at all levels of American society nervous about their ability to negotiate the system effectively, because it provides the only highway to the good life.
The American Meritocracy
The American system of education is formally meritocratic, but one of its social effects is to naturalize privilege. This starts when a student’s academic merit is so central and so pervasive in schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person. You start saying things like: I’m smart. I’m dumb. I’m a good student. I’m a bad student. I’m good at reading but bad at math. I’m lousy at sports. The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you. It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity. It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are. In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual. You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.
The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins. No matter how you measure merit, it affects your score. It shapes your educational attainment. It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity. Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school. Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.
The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine. Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life. Let us count the ways. Economic capital is one obvious factor. Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor. Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects. For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.
Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all. School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power. Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others: mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft. Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis. Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital. It’s a language they learn to speak at home. For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know. They’re playing catchup from day one. Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it. So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up. The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.
In the wonderful world of academic merit, therefore, the fix is in. Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy. But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins. They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit. They’re good students. They’re smart. They’re well educated. As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs. They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege. So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.
In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy. It turns class position into academic merit. It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy. But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities. You’ve been given a second nature.
Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy
The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society. The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality. People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out. According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve. The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.
In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit. It has created a new kind of aristocracy. This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials. As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated. Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy. But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.
The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system. You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children. The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal. Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door. Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired. What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else. So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs. Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side. Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application. Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.
Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding. There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough. In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.
As we saw earlier, such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems. The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down. The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid. Again, as Karabel put it, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.
As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other. Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating. And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.
By assuming the form of meritocracy, schools have come to play a central role in defining the character of modern society. In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality. At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France. Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.
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Young, Michael D. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023. New York: Random House.
 U.S. News (2015).
 Riesman, (1958).
 Geiger (2004), 270.
 Pell (2015), p. 31.
 Pell (2015), p. 31.
 NCES (2014), table 326.20.
 CCRC (2015).
 Pew (2012), figure 3.
 Karabel (2005), p. 547.
 Young (1958).