Why Elite People Have a Monopoly on America’s Elite Universities (And Why Nobody Should Care)

Barry Lenson

Why Elite People Have a Monopoly on America’s Elite Universities

(And Why Nobody Should Care)

Elite UniversitiesLike a lot of people, I just read the new runaway bestselling book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. I really tore through the book. It’s a great read. It explains why and how a small minority of Americans – the top 5%, with a sort of “super-elite” clustered in the top 1% - is becoming a new and highly influential demographic that will become increasingly cut off from the rest of the population in the years to come.

This super-elite group is already in place, Murray writes. Its members live in just a few areas of the country – mostly between Washington, DC and Boston on the East Coast, but also in select Zip Codes elsewhere in the country. While the rest of America chows down at Appleby’s, drinks Diet Coke and watches hours of televised sports, the super-elite dines at excusive small restaurants, uncorks Beaujolais Nouveau and goes to the Telluride Film Festival.  If you are hearing the word “snob,” you are right.

According to Murray, this super-elite has already gotten a strangle hold on America’s Ivy League and other exclusive colleges – and that the current situation is unlikely ever to change, because of factors like these. . .

  • “The College Sorting Machine” - For the last few decades, Americans with “high cognitive ability” have attended exclusive institutions, where they have met other highly intelligent people, married them, and had children who are equally brilliant.  (Murray presents statistics that support the view that intelligent people are much more likely to have children with “high cognitive ability” than other people are. That could be because of nature or nurture.) If students at elite colleges don’t meet other elites there and marry them after college, no problem; they will take high-level jobs and meet other elites to marry there. And as alumni, elite parents always have the inside track to get their kids into their prestigious alma mater institutions.
  • “Cognitive Stratification” – Until World War II, most of the students who attended elite colleges did so because they came from wealthy families. Statistically speaking, those students were not really smarter than students who attended other schools. Today, only top academic achievers stand a chance of getting into elite schools. Example: Back in 1961, 25% of Yale students actually scored lower than 600 on the Math or Verbal sections of the SAT. Today, 52% of Yale students scored between 700 and 800. The result, according to Murray, is that elite colleges are, more than ever before, breeding grounds for cognitively exceptionally people who will meet, marry, and have brilliant children.
  • Economic stratification – The children of doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and other wealthy individuals have a much better chance of getting into elite colleges, even if their parents did not do so. These are the parents who “know the ropes,” know how to get their kids tutored to earn high grades and ace standardized tests, and know how to get their children accepted by elite schools. So the cream keeps rising to the top.
  • The flattening-out of non-exclusive education - Murray writes that even in the stratum of schools that lies just underneath elite schools, the quality of student ability falls off dramatically. The typical “third-tier” college, he writes, is full of students who are no better than “average,” while any elite college is now populated exclusively by students who are in the top 1% of cognitive talent.  The result, he writes, is that not all college degrees are equal. In the marketplace, a B.A. degree from a middle-tier college or university will not be valued too much, while the same degree from an elite college will be golden. So the graduates of exclusive institutions will get the important jobs, increase their power and influence, and will send their own children back to exclusive schools.

Sounds Pretty Dismal, Right?

Murray’s book is quite compelling. In fact, it is just about impossible to refute the fact that the trends he describes are really taking place. A very small percentage of Americans is, in fact, cementing its power and cutting itself off from other Americans.

My problem with Murray’s argument is that it seems to assume that it is impossible to attain high levels of success in life without a degree from an elite college or university. Furthermore, his way of thinking conforms to the pervasive, U.S. News & World Report view that Ivy League and top liberal arts colleges really are the “best,” and that if you don’t get into one of those, you are going to have a second-rate educational experience.

I am sure that Murray can point to statistics that prove that average graduates of Yale or Harvard really can expect to earn a certain amount more over the course of their careers than can, say, the graduates of Lehigh or Rutgers. My problem is that statistics never reveal what ambitious individuals can do with their lives, regardless of where they went to college. We all know the stories of ultra-successful people who never completed college – people like Woody Allen, Sir Winston Churchill, Simon Cowell, Peter Jennings, and Steve Jobs.

We need to remember that we live in a time when talent and entrepreneurial spirit can level the playing field for the graduates of elite colleges and everyone else. We also need to remember that a lot of the stuff that people learn at exclusive universities isn’t really that extraordinary, much as those institutions would like us to think that it is. (I got a Masters from Yale, so I am not just blowing smoke when I say that Yale has a good brand, but it was really not that special.)

So the bottom line is, most of us can either feel excluded and lick our wounds and feel terrible because we would never have a chance of getting into an exclusive university, or we can get motivated and become successful and make a difference in the world. I think it is a pretty simple choice when you put it that way.

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