The US College Scandal, The UK “Class” Ceiling, & The Meritocracy Ideal

By Anastasia Roscia.

Last month, the biggest US college scandal to date led the FBI to accuse famous Hollywood actresses, CEOs of law firms and prominent business leaders of paying thousands of dollars to help their children get into competitive elite universities. There were a variety of unlawful methods used, including bribing coaches working at these institutions, photoshopping the faces of their children onto bodies of real athletes and falsifying SATs scores.

This story is so incredible and unexpected that it received much backlash and media coverage. Many believe that the main injustice revealed by the investigation is that more-qualified students lost their spots because less-worthy (but richer) kids bribed their way to those institutions, thus betraying the meritocratic American Dream. I believe this is a partial reading that prevents us from speaking about education inequalities, social mobility and how as a society we define success.

There are two important narratives we have happily signed up for (myself included). Firstly, we believe that success is the natural consequence of merit, hard work and talent. Getting into a top-tier college is one of the most impressive achievements we can ever experience. Secondly, we assume that children from different social backgrounds and with different experiences are competing on the same level, no matter their upbringing, parental status or economic means. As a result, social mobility seems to be possible through education and merit alone. But the meritocratic myth is not exclusive to the American dream.

In both the UK and the US, the university admission process and social mobility statistics reveal a different reality. Some have emphasized how there are legal ways in which children from well-off families have an undoubted advantage, compared to less fortunate children from far less glamorous backgrounds. The parents indicted in the scandal could have taken this path instead of turning to illegal and Machiavellian means. For instance, private education is a must to ensure that children will get used to “intense” academic work. In addition, top internships and experiences, as well as (legally) paying coaches to prepare Ivy League applicants for SATs, interviews and personal statements are legitimate choices for parents who comprehensibly want the best of the best for their sons and daughters.

The UK might appear as a faraway reality from the US landscape. However, according to the Sutton Trust’s Leading People 2016 report, privately educated children who end up in top institutions tend to make up most elite professions. A recent book written by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison called ‘The Class Ceiling, Why it pays to be privileged’ suggests that working-class children are far less likely to reach top jobs in law, media and medicine – and even if they do, are going to earn 16% less than their upper-class peers doing the same job, and with limited objective explanations.

Research from Friedman and Laurison has found objective drivers for just half of the pay gap between the working and user classes who do similar jobs in similar positions. For example, working-class children are less likely to work in London or for bigger firms (where the earning potential is higher). It is impossible to explain the other half of the pay gap without turning to less ‘objective’ data. One interesting consideration is that working-class people are less used to behavioural codes which make promotion and higher earnings more likely: these codes are widely associated with professionalism and merit, and they have traditionally belonged to upper and upper-middle classes. I wonder if we can draw the conclusion that society identifies success with traditional upper-middle-class achievements – in the past, attending prestigious universities was traditionally reserved to the rich and the privileged. Could this provide a plausible explanation for the US obsession with attending Ivy League universities and the indicted parents’ illegal actions?

I believe meritocracy justifies looking down on the people who don’t ‘make it’ in education and work, and legitimizes a sense of personal value and achievement which is psychological, both for “the winner” and “the loser”. For instance, Sam Friedman said that those who miss out on better opportunities due to social class tend to feel that their misfortunes are their fault. With regard to the recent US scandal, commentators have very much followed the meritocratic narrative: the less-worthy stole the spot for the truly talented and deserving. I think that is a mistake because it reinforces a negative psychological mechanism. What we should take from this scandal is something different from the angry comments on the legal and illegal ways rich families buy their kids’ future, at the expense of the most-deserving kids. As Sam Friedman has suggested, people want to believe they are responsible for the social position they occupy and the material conditions they enjoy – thus, we like to believe in education as a social mobility enabler and social equalizer for our fair society (even when studies and statistics reveal otherwise). But even if social class and parental wealth had no impact and true meritocracy was possible, there would still be winners and losers.

Perhaps we want to believe in the meritocratic myth because it is much more reassuring than believing in a reality in which your background impacts where you end up. Believing in a society which rewards our most gifted young people with prestigious college admissions and professions, regardless of their initial background, gives us a sense of control over our destiny and future. In times of uncertainty and economic recession, this is invaluable.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that privately educated children who attend prestigious institutions do not deserve their position or success; I know a few of them and, can attest to the extraordinary level of commitment and hard work they put into their academics and extracurriculars. I simply believe that we should not use the US college scandal to reinforce a meritocratic myth which is both unfulfillable, and psychologically negative for those who inevitably “lose”. More importantly, we should redefine our sense of achievement and success – being more concerned with our humanity and compassion rather than our ambitious dreams of economic, professional and educational prestige.

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