Monday, May 7, 2012

Inequality in American Education

From a review of  Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be:
whereas the child of a family earning at least $90,000 a year stands a 50 percent chance of receiving a BA by the time he or she turns 24, for a child whose annual family income is in the range of $60,000 to $90,000, the odds diminish to one in four. For someone from a household with an annual income of $35,000 or less, they plummet to one in seventeen.
This matters a great deal in how well people do over the course of their lives; based on current figures, Americans with a B.A. will earn about twice as much over their lifetimes as those who never attend college.
Delbanco performs an invaluable public service by deftly dissecting the notion of “meritocracy,” which he aptly characterizes as the reigning ideology of class privilege. The idea of meritocracy suggests that those who have acceded to positions of prominence have arrived there by their own talents and abilities—they have bested their peers on a level playing field and are therefore entitled to success. But with what justification can one speak of a “level playing field” when wealthy parents spend exorbitant sums on SAT prep courses and college admissions gurus? Compounding the problem is the practice at elite colleges and universities of setting aside a considerable number of places in an incoming class for recruited athletes, the children of faculty and “legacies” (the children of alumni), leaving fewer available places for the general applicant pool. “It is a pipe dream to imagine that every student can have the sort of experience that our richest colleges, at their best, provide,” Delbanco observes. “But it is a nightmare society that affords the chance to learn and grow only to the wealthy, brilliant, or lucky few.”
The casual way wealthy Americans justify their privileged lives constantly amazes me -- "I work hard for my money" is a line I have heard more times than I can count, as if coal miners and lettuce pickers didn't also work hard. I have been trying for 15 years now to convince my children that there is nothing fair about the system, and that success depends on playing by its rules. So far the lesson has taken with one child, my elder daughter, who is on her way to Mount Holyoke next year. My sons stubbornly insist that determining how well we do in life by our grades in inane high school courses taught by ignoramuses is "stupid," and they refuse to play along. And it is stupid, but, well, there it is. My sons still have plenty of time to acquire other valuable skills, but the route that leads via high school stardom to a top university and thence into the administrative or academic elite is already closed to them, as it is to most Americans.

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