I distinctly remember an interaction I had my first year, in which I told a new friend that my middle name was Hartley. “Oh, like Hartley Hall? Are your parents big donors?” I laughed, but the person that I was with did not. She just continued to look at me inquisitively. I paused, then I stammered, “No, I didn’t pay my way in here. I have no relation to the Hartley family. I deserve to be here.” I was indignant that someone could assume otherwise.
There was a stark contrast in my mind between those who deserved to be here and those who didn’t, and I belonged solidly in the former category. I was a product of the meritocracy: Blood, sweat, tears, and extracurriculars got me into Columbia. Now, two years later, I am much more cognizant of the privileges my background afforded me, and I can confidently say that I don’t deserve to be here. No one really deserves to be here.
In a fantastic Atlantic piece from earlier this year, Matthew Stewart makes the case that society is quickly stratifying into three distinct classes: the bottom 90 percent of wealth holders, the superrich top 0.1 percent, and the rich-but-not-too-rich top 9.9 percent (excluding the 0.1 percenters).
The superrich 0.1 percenters have gained more and more of a share of the wealth in the past few decades, but they have done so at the expense of the bottom 90 percent. The top 9.9 percent has remained largely unchanged, and one of the ways its members perpetuated its existence is through their monopoly on elite higher education. They pride themselves on getting into elite universities on the basis of merit, rather than on the basis of bloodline or donation size. But in reality, they have made its dominance hereditary.
The economic data on Columbia’s undergraduate makeup supports this thesis. The makeup of students at Columbia skews massively in favor of the so-called upper-middle class. A whopping 48 percent of Columbia students come from the top 10 percent of income-earner families. 13.4 percent of undergraduates come from households in the top 1 percent (this is actually low—amazingly, five of the Ivies have more students from families in the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent). This means that, excluding the much-vilified 1 percent, more than one-third of Columbia students come from the top 9 percent. This is the group from which I came. We’re rich, but not rich rich. We didn’t pay our way in, so our overrepresentation is completely justified. We can take full credit for every single aspect of our achievements. Right?
Wrong. Who paid for our private schools, SAT tutors, music lessons, fencing coaches, humanitarian trips overseas, etc.? For many of us, our parents were standing right over our shoulder as we crafted our college applications. Our parents’ wealth played a large role in getting us to where we are today. It allowed them to spend sizable sums of money and time on our education, affording access to opportunities not available to low-income students. We are the beneficiaries of these affordances—most of us will get good paying jobs and will, in turn, pass opportunities along to our children. We are perpetuating a privileged class. Oh, and don’t forget about legacy status—undergraduate admissions quite literally takes heredity into consideration when evaluating the strength of an applicant.
Compare our representation to the 3.8 percent of students from the bottom 20 percent or the 21.1 percent in the bottom 60 percent. The meritocracy is awfully selective against students from low-income families. Affirmative action has managed to make elite colleges much more diverse in certain respects, but it has not produced real economic diversity. Perversely, part of the function of affirmative action programs is, in Stewart’s words, “to indulge rich people in the belief that their college is open to all on the basis of merit.” Evidently, Columbia is not.
Think of the phrase “investing in your children.” This is literally what parents are doing; they are spending money to improve the human capital of their children. There is nothing nefarious or wrong about this. It’s only natural that parents want to spend money to ensure their children get a good education en route to a good job. But we should be aware of how this phenomenon —parents buying opportunity for their children and then praising them for their achievements—reinforces the view among these privileged children that they are the generator of their own success and that anyone who isn’t achieving like we are just isn’t working hard enough. Not only is this self-evidently false, but it gives the privileged license to not care about struggling people.
I don’t think that any of us can take complete responsibility for our successes. We didn’t choose our home lives or our educational opportunities. We didn’t even choose individualized features of our personhood like our genes or our willpower. We had no control over a myriad of factors that determine who we are and how we act today. No man is an island. You didn’t construct the person you are today in a vacuum. You don’t merit the hand you’ve been dealt in any ultimate sense. And to those like me, you have positive obligations to people less fortunate than yourself, both at home and abroad. They don’t deserve to have a less privileged life. Meritocracy is a lie and a pernicious one at that.
The author is a junior pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and a Bachelor of Science in economics. You can reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this op-ed or any pressing societal issue.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.