Higher education in the US is messed up. I think of college as a bubble in economics. Its price, in terms of money, time, emotional effort, social capital, etc. does not reflect the value of the underlying asset. It has been so far removed from what it’s supposed to be – education – and instead is a crystallisation of political, socioeconomic, and cultural forces that render it largely symbolic; a symbol of the mythos of the American dream. That’s partly why we Americans eat this up. We love to believe in meritocracy, where if you just work hard enough, you too, yes, you, can make it.
There’s this concept in psychology called the Just World Phenomenon, where people have the tendency to believe that the universe doles out justice so that people get what they deserve, and deserve what they get. In other words, if you’re successful, it’s because you earned it all by yourself. If you’re not successful it’s because of your character failings, and not because of, say, oppressive structural barriers like institutionalised racism or lack of access to resources. So that’s the thing: we live in a culture that valorises the notion of individualism, but in reality, is structured on entrenched systems of group privilege. We treat acceptances to “elite” colleges like they’re vindications of hard work when, in so many cases, they’re just reflections and perpetrators of these structures of privilege. Not only are there the most overt examples, like the Olivia Jade scandal or donating a building or the fact that wealthy kids are more likely to have access to niche sports like rowing, golf, or squash that help them get recruited, or pay for private tutors, counselors, and SAT prep courses, but there’s also more mundane manifestations of privilege, like having access to better schools with more AP class offerings, or not having to work a job to support your family, or even just having a culture within your community where going to college is the norm. These things accumulate and shape our identity and opportunities. Take me as an example. I was granted immense privilege in my life by sheer luck. I went to a really good private school, I never had to help my family pay the bills, I’ve always had access to the internet, and both of my parents went to college. I was pretty much given a head start from the womb. And what did I do to earn it? Same as everyone else: absolutely nothing! So, if you still believe we live in a meritocracy, check your privilege. Highly selective colleges are predominated by wealthy kids who are already at the top, fighting tooth and nail to stay there.
Essentially, they’re a mechanism to cling onto privilege obtained through privilege. In 2017, a study by economist Raj Chetty found that children whose parents are at the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile. Going to a highly selective school does have some tangible benefits for upward mobility, especially for those of lower-income backgrounds. Going to Harvard or Stanford might change the life trajectory of a low-income student, but for a rich kid from a feeder private high school, it’s just resume fodder. The people at the top of the socioeconomic ladder don’t even have much room to mobilise upward. There’s this top-down pressure from the wealthy, who value college mainly for the prestige, squeezing out the students who will benefit most, primarily low-income students of colour. Even these supposed benefits are problematic because they cause us to emphasise pushing lower-income students, especially students of color, into these overwhelmingly white and elitist spaces. This still feeds into the clout machine of college and maintains or increases its unattainability, rather than democratising it.
There are other solutions to the problem with US higher education that are undervalued, like investing more in HBCUs or encouraging other paths like community college or technical school. This prestige culture stigmatises those who choose to go to, say, a state school over an Ivy or UC because of financial considerations. The clout we give to elite colleges is not proportional to the actual quality of education provided. Everyone says this, but it is true: you can get an equally great education from any school if you put in the work, and you can get a substandard education at Harvard. It just comes down to what you make of your learnings in college/university. So ask yourself, why do you want to go to college? To learn? To meet people? To improve your job prospects? To make connections? You can do these things anywhere, so I’m guessing for a lot of people (you and me included), the real answer is, “the clout.” Because of this, education, which should be a public good, has been co-opted into a commodity. This pursuit of prestige affects everybody so we all contribute to building this cult of personality around these schools. We’ve manufactured this mystique of untouchability in the way we talk about them, the way we aspire toward them, the way we’ve created a genre on YouTube of college decision reaction videos that perpetuate the myth of college grandeur and the prevailing idea that this is what your entire life has been building up to. The result of this is that we collectively enable these institutions to wield the power that they do. We allow them to continue to be prohibitively expensive; they have us begging to go into crippling debt. Despite this, the colleges themselves aren’t as attractive as they seem; the idyllic aura we construct around these schools veils a lot of the ugliness underneath. For example, so many of these prestigious schools are huge contributors to the gentrification of their communities. UPenn uses its status as a nonprofit to avoid paying property taxes to the city of Philadelphia when the Philly public school system is around $500mm in debt. Columbia does the same in New York City, New York. When I was younger, I had this romanticised view that colleges were somehow the arbiters of moral character, like “they only let in good people!” But then, the white supremacist chad in the grade above you gets into Cornell and you’re like “Oh! Just kidding, nevermind…” I know so many crummy people who go to big-name schools and so many incredible people who don’t and vice versa.
A lot of people spend their teenage lives crafting personas on the perceived standards set by these faceless institutions. They’ll do extracurriculars they hate for years if it means getting into college. But college is not the endgame! If you waste away your formative years becoming a walking resume after you’ve done your admission decisions reaction video and the process is over for you, then what? Who are you? Instead of forcing yourself to become who you think your dream school wants you to be, discover who you are. Find what you’re passionate about, do good for others, build meaningful relationships, practise compassion and gratitude, figure out how you can better yourself, and your community, and the world around you. At the end of the day, we’re all just souls inside of meat sacks with electrical cabbages in our heads, learning to live on a wet rock, floating in space, descending towards the inevitable heat death of the universe. Go live your life!
Before you go…
•My name is Okezue Bell, a high school student, activist, and researcher, interested in all sorts of topics. You can check out my website at https://okezuebell.com or email me for inquiries or offers. I hope you enjoyed this writing.