College Tuition and the Decline of Meritocracy

You want to go to Harvard?

There is an interesting article in the Economist on effects of inequality on inequalities, pointing out that the wealthy can now appear to be more justified in their advantage because they are advantaged. It’s pretty straightforward and nuanced, covering ground articulated by the works of Mario Small, Annette Lareau, and others (though none are cited). Rich people get high end day care. Rich people can send their kids to piano, tennis, lacrosse, swimming, art, writing camp, math workshops….etc etc. and then sure enough the rich kids get into the elite universities.

But there is much more to it than that, and the article ahistorically asserts that somehow America ever strived toward meritocracy except in a very brief period following WWII. The flippant mention of sports bringing ethnic diversity to elite colleges and of quotas against high performing Asians belies a more insidious long term plot—and yes, it was a plot—to undermine the advancement of the middle class into the elite. Ten years after George W. Bush graduated from Yale, there is no way that a worthless loser moron like him would have been admitted to Yale, an “his” spot would have gone to some middle class kid with awesome grades and test scores (which weren’t used in 1964….). Hence, the wealthy have forged a plan to make sure that their spawn continue to hold “legitimate” advantage, and tuition plays a strong roll, along with inferior education schemes for the middle classes and the poor.

We no longer have a system like the old California master plan, one generated to give a leg up to the lower classes and to ensure that state universities were equal to if not better than private elite colleges. If you were in the top 12% of California high schoolers you got into UCLA or Berkeley for free, free tuition for all Cal State schools for the top third of high school grads. Free tuition for community colleges for anyone who made acceptable grades in the courses. Now, Berkeley costs $13,456 for in-state tuition in 2014-15, admission is so competitive that it makes getting into places like Vanderbilt or Emory seem easy.

But, the focus on rising tuition at public institutions fails to notice the exorbitant growth of tuition in private universities. The current bill at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Tulsa, is now $35,855. When I attended my first year in 1985 tuition was $3000 a year (equivalent to $6,608.28 in 2015 dollars). I transferred from the University of Oklahoma where tuition, room, board, and books were less than $1500 a year, so it was a great shock. But Oklahoma was under full bore assault, and several wonderful professors I had there left at the same time I did (including political scientist Ken Meier). At Tulsa I had small classes, tenure tracked professors with real PhD’s, and most importantly, academic standards. We had to read shit and write and shit like that. We had to take language courses, math, history, philosophy, social sciences, biology….everyone.

I can say with certainty that I would never have graduated from Tulsa if I were in the same situation 30 years later. I couldn’t have afforded it. I would have stayed at Oklahoma, and would have barely afforded that. And, I would have gone to the cheapest law school I could get into, unless I lucked into a scholarship. I would have never considered an academic career. And that is just what elite corporatists want.

High tuition drives high achieving middle class kids out of elite institutions. They can’t afford it. You can go to Harvard for $100k a year (no help if your parents make over $125k or so….), or you can go to Illinois for $15k or less…or a minor regional like SIU for free…..but you’ll never enter the elite from the minor leagues. You’ll be taught mostly by graduate students for the first few years, and will rarely see an honest to gods professor. Your courses will be canned from textbooks. Your exams will be multiple guess. Your curriculum will be as minimal as possible, and many courses will be “online” courses that we used to call telecourses back in the Junior college days.

Now, our deanlets and their corporate overlords (who have paid Hillary Clinton tens of millions of dollars personally, and much more than that in campaign bribes) are pushing for 3 year degrees and 4+1 “masters” degrees. Yeah, you get your degree. You just don’t get an education. Educations will be exclusively for people who can pay enormous sums of money to private schools that still employ professors and have academic standards. And, in the end, the graduates of the cheap and easy public schools will be less qualified for elite occupations.

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