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College and the Dangerous Myth of Merit

College and the Dangerous Myth of Merit

In a ranking of states by their concentration of college graduates, the first red state on the list comes in at #16. Thanks, BYU. West Virginia of course anchors the rankings, followed by a Confederate roll call of SEC states. Basically, the more College Football Championships your state has earned the less likely its residents have a college education.

Throughout our living memory, America was organized around a unifying mythology of race. Whiteness was the definition of “us,” the core around which all forms of collaboration and sharing were organized. That order is dying, though a plurality of Americans are willing to sacrifice everything to preserve it.

One of the contenders in the race to replace white supremacy is a bastardized meritocracy in which educational attainment replaces race as a defining ideal. In this mythology, barriers of race, gender and other innate identities are removed. Anyone in this model can become anything they want to be as long as they work hard and achieve in an academic setting. 

There’s one problem – in the US, educational attainment is inextricably bound with class. Since Americans refuse to see or acknowledge class, this problem goes unnoticed and unresolved, converting a promising avenue toward an open society into a social straight-jacket. Without radical changes in the structure and financing of both secondary and higher education, our meritocratic ideal will lock a hereditary, largely white aristocracy into place, wrapped in a false pretense of personal achievement. If we’re not careful, our effort to dismantle white supremacy will founder on the rocks of our unacknowledged class system.

As race recedes from its once dominant role in American life, a college education is emerging  as the new definition of “us.” College graduates, who now make up almost 40% of the population live in a nation of their own. Unemployment rates for college graduates regularly run at half the rate for high school grads. Average salaries for those with a professional degree are almost triple the level for those without a college education. While overall mortality rates for Americans have entered a period of decline, college graduates are actually living longer

Over and over you’ll see the same reductive conclusion – a college education makes for a better life. There is material reason to believe this is true, but this belief glosses over an uglier reality. College has evolved into a proxy for class. College graduates tend to earn more, live longer, healthier lives, are less likely to be arrested and less likely to divorce because they started out in life with a larger slice of our society’s resources. College graduates now marry each other, live together in newly segregated neighborhoods where they raise their kids together in segregated schools. College graduates are building worlds of their own, separated from the problems of those around them. In the US, a college education correlates with better life outcomes because access to college correlates with inherited affluence.

Studies have repeatedly found that in the US, the greatest predictor of a child’s educational success is their mother’s educational attainment. This pattern isn’t found elsewhere. Subsequent studies sought to confirm the assumed explanation for this pattern, that a “smart” mom does a better job raising children. No such correlation has emerged. Studies aimed at locating these advantages among children in their middle years have failed to find it. So, what else does a mother’s educational achievement suggest? Affluence in a previous generation. 

Wealthier kids are more likely to complete college. Children of people who completed college are more likely to attend and complete college. This isn’t a consequence of some magic spice acquired by the college learning experience but the simple mechanics of wealth and class.

College is expensive. Borrowing money to complete college is dangerous, as the US has embraced a system of indentured servitude to fund education for those who can’t afford to pay. College tends to be residential and often far from home. To be clear, a three hour drive is “far from home” for many 18-year olds. This means that a kid who runs into trouble there needs an expensive safety net to remain on track. Lower income families can’t as easily travel to support their students, pay for access to the campus social networks that provide local support, or support loan obligations for a kid who needs to interrupt their education.

For all its many virtues, and it is absolutely essential for life in a knowledge economy, college in the US is not the meritocratic experience we imagine. In the US, success in higher education belongs to the people for whom higher education was designed and by whom it is staffed and managed – the affluent. Merit is merely an insulting justification for the emergence of a self-reinforcing aristocracy.

High school is a relatively recent invention which quickly became essential. We didn’t see half of high school students consistently get a diploma until the 1970’s. Mass higher education is an even newer phenomenon. As recently as 1998, fewer than a quarter of Americans held a college degree. Today almost 70% of high school graduates in the US will begin college. Among those coming from lower income families, barely 10% will finish. That is not a meritocracy.

This is not a problem of intelligence or “preparation,” but of class. Fixing these issues would be simple if we could acknowledge that they exist, but Americans are more comfortable acknowledging our racial horrors than tolerating even a suggestion that class exists. 

It’s not an accident that Americans without a college education, especially those who are white and have managed to pile up a bit of wealth, are backing Fascist politics. They’re not just frightened by the decline of their racial advantages, but by the emergence of an educated white aristocracy with access to money and power they can’t match. Let this dynamic continue for long and they’ll find allies among minorities who are similarly locked out of this system. Once that happens our capacity to break free from the trap of Fascism will dangerously narrow.

Our history of race and class explains the world around us. So far we’re beginning to confront race. That leaves us almost halfway to a better country.


  1. Compelling but I do have an issue with this. Going to college today is easier than ever. 1.9 million college grads a year for an economy than only produces 1.1 million jobs per year that require a college degree.

    Attending and graduating college is not the problem nor does it create a meritocracy on its own. I was lucky enough to attend a Big 10 college (not Michigan or Northwestern) and am financially better off than people I know that attended Stanford and Vanderbilt.

    But I also know others that attended equal or lesser ranked colleges (and nearly flunked out) that are doing much better than me financially because Daddy bailed them out with connections post-graduation. One was able to retire a multi-millionaire before age 40.

    So its not the college or the degrees you get. Often its just how who your parents are or who their connections are.

    If we had a true meritocracy it would be one thing. But we don’t. The real problem is people who could not succeed in a true meritocracy who race ahead of others due to wealthy and powerful connections. Then they remove the ladder for those behind them.

  2. I’ve recommended Paul Fussell’s book “Class” before, and I’ll do so again. The first major point in the book is how vehemently Americans deny that social class exists here.

    I’m the beneficiary of very good timing- I graduated from a State college with zero debt before the price of higher Ed started to skyrocket. I leveraged good grades into grad school admission at a very high ranking private university. Grad school in STEM fields is a form of indenture, but if you get into a good program you won’t starve and they will make sure you graduate in a timely manner (even then the average is 6 years for a PhD in the biological sciences). There are certainly many more PhDs than tenure track positions, but you’re far more employable than many people. I feel really bad for the kids in grad school/ 1st postdoc who still have a mountain of undergrad debt to pay off.

  3. This was an excellent piece as always. However, I think it deserves a postscript. I’ll use my own experience as an example.

    I might be one of the 10% of lower-class Americans that finished college. My family hovered just above the poverty line for most of my life until early in my adulthood. I ultimately got a Masters in Public History. However, once I had that degree, I couldn’t get into a career that made use of it, even indirectly. Hundreds of positions I applied for, and I only got a single interview. Even after I abandoned my aspirations of a history-related field, I struggle to find decent work.

    As a result, I have been underemployed my entire adulthood. The only employers willing to take me are ones with high turnover. I was thankfully able to pay off my $60k student loan with help from my Dad, who received a decent inheritance from his financially successful father and sister.

    From what I’ve been able to gather, I’ve encountered this brick wall because I did not have the connections and the social network that affluent kids have access to by default. I have an introverted personality and I’m neurodivergent, which makes it difficult for me to create and maintain friendships easily. That makes befriending the right people in the right firms next to impossible. Me being neurodivergent is also off-putting to hiring managers, who are more interested in hiring somebody who looks and acts like themselves.

    So yeah, it should be noted that even for those low-class Americans who *do* make it through higher education, the emerging aristocracy quite likes its insularity, and has ways of keeping we the 10% out.

    1. Yeah, your response is around what I was thinking.

      I feel like a lot of my comments lately have been, “But what if we look at the data in this other way? What then?” Which means I really need to push myself to look into the data myself and learn where to find it, credit it, and so forth, rather than asking other people. It’s just a time and skill level thing.

      But my question about the discrepancy between quality of life of college graduates and non-college graduates is, does that discrepancy disappear or remain between the, for instance, 90-someodd percent college graduates from state schools and accessible universities, and 1-10% something college graduates from top prestigious schools?

      In other words, if I graduate from some state school in Idaho, should I expect my quality of life to be statistically closer to someone in Idaho who never went to college, or statistically closer to someone who graduated from Harvard?

      My hypothesis is the ‘averages’ of better quality of life are weighted higher because of extreme wealth at the high end of the ‘college graduate’ definition, and the majority of accessible non-prestige secondary education graduates are only marginally better off than their non-college graduating peers, a margin significantly chipped away at by student loans. Even, I think, for enough people, for the student loans to ultimately cost more to the full life quality of the graduate than attained from graduating.

      Hence why there’s been a backlash against college education the last decade and a half. A generation discovered the cost was higher than the marginal utility, and are angry about it.

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