Tribalism In the Land of Opportunity
The recent college admissions scandal has triggered a fair amount of outrage. More than 50 wealthy parents, including successful investors, executives, and celebrities, have engaged high-priced consultants to get their children into decent schools through bribery and cheating. This clearly crosses a line and charges have been brought. Many of these parents are intelligent, educated, thoughtful people. How could they have decided that this behavior is ethical or acceptable?
There is a systemic problem with the college admissions process; the system has NEVER been merit-based. The concept of prioritizing “legacy applicants” at top tier schools is disgusting, but has existed since the very beginning. At Harvard, the acceptance rate for students with at least one Harvard-graduate parent is around 30%…that’s nearly five times the average acceptance rate of around 6 percent! This doesn’t even begin to consider the effect of perfectly legal “Alumni Giving”. A million dollar “gift” can put your child into a very different applicant pool, although these acceptance numbers are hard to find. Examining the effect that perfectly legal cash contributions and alumni privilege can have on admissions, it’s hardly surprising that some parents would decide that $400,000 paid to an expert “consultant” is no worse than a large donation.
Does it Matter?
A common refrain I have heard echoed by the already privileged (or wealthy, or lucky) has been:
“so what? It matters what you do and how hard you work, not where your degree is from”
This is patently false. A mediocre student with a mediocre degree from a top-tier institution will immediately be given the benefit of the doubt. They will get that prestigious internship from the alumnus who happened to be in the same fraternity. They will be selected for that top law school interview. Association with a famous educational institution becomes a brand you can lean on to hide your personal shortcomings. Our current president constantly refers to his degree from the Wharton School of Business. Most people assume he earned his MBA; in reality he transferred into the UPenn undergraduate Economics program his junior year.
I went to school with a shocking number of legacy students from the tri-state area, many of whom ended up working on Wall St. or at hedge funds despite lackluster academic performances. This institutional perpetuation of privilege does more than create employment advantages. There are truly exceptional people who attend these top tier universities. The network attained by admission to these schools results in opportunities to grab onto their coattails. The exceptional few will create high-performing companies and funds; these opportunities for generational wealth creation become available to their “elite” friends.
And the cycle repeats.
Equal Opportunity…for Everyone Else
America was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all, an admirable ideal that we should still aspire to as a society. This is not the same as equal outcome and the unsurprising knee-jerk reaction to Democratic Socialism is a whole separate discussion. However, all citizens should start out on equal footing, with equal protections under the 14th Amendment and an equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, under the current educational system, this ideal falls apart in the first grade.
Unlike public schools in the rest of the world, in the US the majority of school funding comes from property taxes as determined by local governments. The Federal government contributes as little as 8% of public school funds. This creates a system whereby the wealthy (those who own expensive homes) have access to public schools with far higher dollar-per-student budgets. Their children will have better teachers, better facilities, more extracurricular opportunities, better guidance counselors, and expanded course offerings.
Property values in areas with good school systems tend to increase, which again increases the quality of the public school system in a vicious cycle resulting in systemic inequality on a granular level. Neighboring towns may have markedly different property values, income levels, and educational quality. This system, a throwback to our colonial roots, has had the effect of reducing the quality of public schools overall as well as the economic diversity of individual cities and towns. The Pew Research Center recently ranked US elementary and high schools as 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries studied.
Divisiveness and the Shrinking American “We”
For much of the 20th century, Americans shared a common culture and, for the most part, common values. We listened to the same handful of broadcasters, read the same newspapers, and believed in the same ideal of building a better inclusive society. We even voted for the same political candidates. From 1904 to 1988, the popular vote difference between the top two presidential candidates could be reliably expected to be 10% or higher (with a handful of exceptions). Since then, we haven’t even gotten close. Since 2000, the average popular vote delta has been around 3%, as compared to 13% for the preceding 100 years. The rise of the internet, with it’s selective truths and echo chambers, has apparently served as a dividing social force.
And the country is bitterly divided. “Us” vs “Other” is a not new phenomenon, but this form of tribalism is on the rise. “We the People” used to apply to all Americans. But now: “We” are special. “We” can lock up the Other in cages when they enter our country looking for a fraction of the opportunities we take for granted. “We” have the right to better schools in our wealthy town than our poor neighbors. “We” deserve preferential treatment in a merit-based selection processes.
This country no longer believes in a greater good. American culture has been replaced by petty tribes who worship consumerism and fetishize vapid influencers. The recent college admissions scandal is a minor example of a major societal problem. Americans have abandoned the ideals of equality of opportunity upon which the country was built. We must do better.