During the peak of the pandemic, John Katzman and I had a standing phone date at 7:30 on Friday mornings. Katzman usually walked along the beach near his house in the Hamptons while we spoke. I’d sit in my office, try to visualize the beauty of Long Island’s southeastern shore, and listen.
Katzman is astonishingly knowledgeable about the American educational system. He founded Princeton Review, the test-prep behemoth, in the early 1980s, and has founded several other start-ups since. Part of what makes Katzman so compelling is that while he taught kids how to master the SAT, he simultaneously emerged as one of the test’s harshest critics—arguing that it didn’t measure very much and that whatever it did measure either was associated with wealth or could simply be bought. In a 1999 interview on Frontline, Katzman famously called the SAT “just bullshit.” It’s difficult to imagine someone who has more vividly illustrated the advantage of wealth in college admissions than he has.
As our conversations progressed, a question began to nag at me. Why, I finally asked Katzman, was he so disparaging of the organizations that run the SAT and ACT but not of the colleges that base much of their admissions decisions on the exams? After all, those scores mean something only because colleges say they do. Katzman paused for a long time before answering.
“I don’t know,” he said, finally.
In this regard, there are lots of John Katzmans.
I’ve interviewed many of the most outspoken critics of American higher education. Almost all are professors. As a group, college faculty are about the most left-leaning professionals in the United States. Samuel Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College, found that among professors, liberals outnumber conservatives by about six to one. At New England colleges, the ratio is 28 to one. At Harvard, 73 percent of faculty members reported voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. About as many (2 percent) voted for Jill Stein (class of 1973) as for Donald Trump.
At the end of each interview, I’d ask these professors what they thought about the culpability of their own college. Each dismissed the question. Several told me that we spent too much time talking about elite schools, even though most focused their life’s work on the study of elites. A couple told me that their college was not guilty of the most egregious misbehaviors. Almost everyone defended their school. One told me that her college’s president was a first-generation college student who’d significantly expanded the school’s efforts to recruit first-gen kids. She didn’t seem overly bothered when I showed her data that 25 percent of its early-action admits were legacies.
They all know that the influence of wealth in college admissions is a problem. Last year, Stanford’s Faculty Senate adopted a set of proposals ostensibly designed to correct for it. But the measures are milquetoast: improve data collection by requiring applicants to list who read their application, study the effect of admissions on philanthropic support, and “initiate surveys to track the distribution of income and wealth levels for parents and undergraduates.” Improving data collection and surveying students is hardly a rallying cry for urgent social change. Conspicuously absent from the faculty’s proposals was any language holding Stanford responsible for the fact that 14 percent of its students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution.
That’s pretty much how it is across the board at elite schools. Like Katzman, most professors are happy to decry the unfairness of higher education as a system but unwilling to assign blame to any individual institution.
One obvious explanation is that they teach at these colleges. It’s natural not to bite the hand that feeds you. But academics often take positions that put them in conflict with their employer. Faculty have pushed colleges to divest from South Africa and make their campuses more sustainable, and they have vocally advocated for reforming the criminal-justice system. They aren’t shrinking violets.
Something deeper is going on. Why do faculty speak so differently about things that happen in their house as opposed to everyone else’s? Understanding this dynamic might help us begin to answer the question at the root of the inequities in American higher education: How can a system run by liberals be so conservative?
After finishing college in Ontario, Leanne Son Hing wanted to take a year off before graduate school. She was concerned about environmental issues, and so she responded to a classified ad placed by Greenpeace, which gave her a job. Son Hing spent the following year going door-to-door, soliciting donations.
One would think that someone canvassing for Greenpeace in Toronto would be warmly received. Canada has a long history of conservationism. On the contrary, many homeowners were hostile. They yelled at the stumpers to get off their property. One person hit Son Hing’s colleague in the head with a can of soup. “The vitriol against Greenpeace,” she told me, “was the most surprising part of the job.”
Somehow, the magnitude of global warming seemed to make fundraising harder, not easier. “The threat is so huge,” Son Hing said, “that if you’re not changing your life and advocating for all systems to change to address it, then it’s like you’re a complete idiot.” Rather than think of themselves as stupid or insensitive, people resolved the dissonance by minimizing the problem or choosing not to think about it.
Today, Son Hing, who’s a professor at the University of Guelph, in southeastern Ontario, would say that the people she spoke with were engaging in “system justification.” She’s dedicated her career to understanding this process. System justification is the idea that people tend to defend not only their individual actions but also the social, economic, and political systems to which they belong—even if these systems work to their detriment.
This is the opposite of what economists and political scientists normally argue happens. Consider how people react to income inequality. The leading rational-choice model holds that as income inequality increases, more voters will support redistributive tax policies and vote accordingly. Son Hing’s research suggests that the opposite is true. As inequality rises, people become less accurate in their estimates of how much inequality exists. More important, they adjust their perception of what they think is fair. Indeed, survey data show that as the wage gap between low- and high-wage earners exploded in the United States from 1987 to 1999, people widened their judgment of what difference was appropriate. This sets in motion a vicious cycle. The more inequality exists, the more likely people are to believe that society operates meritocratically.
People tend to fall prey to the “just-world hypothesis,” a bias toward believing that the world operates fairly. “It’s hard to have no sense of control,” Son Hing told me, “and to believe that the odds are stacked against you.” So when something bad happens to someone, we tend to search for explanations about why they deserved their fate.
Given the human inclination to justify the system to which we belong, and the stickiness of meritocratic beliefs, colleges would have to work hard to make their students and faculty understand the extent of inequity in American higher education. Instead, elite colleges simultaneously reproduce class inequality and belief in the justness of that inequality.
This process begins with whom they let in. Nothing makes rich people feel more secure in the fairness of the system than spending time around other rich people. People are more apt to overestimate meritocracy and social mobility, and less likely to support redistribution, when they operate “within their narrow social context,” Son Hing told me. It’s hard to imagine a narrower social context than those created on elite-college campuses.
The process continues with the putatively meritocratic way that colleges operate. “Everything we do in academia is based on the assumption that merit can be assessed,” Son Hing said, citing Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think, a remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the peer-review process. Virtually every evaluative mechanism in the academy—peer review of scholarly articles and grant applications, grading, and tenure evaluation—purports to be objective and is supremely hierarchical.
The process culminates with the types of careers that elite colleges steer students into. The majority of Harvard graduates take a job in technology, investment banking, or management consulting—occupations that make wealthy people wealthier and, research shows, increase their support for social hierarchy. In a survey of Harvard’s class of 2020, only 4 percent of seniors entering the workforce said they planned to go into public service or work for a nonprofit organization.
So elite colleges disproportionately let in affluent applicants who are predisposed to denying inequality, surround them with similar people, teach them in a system that confirms their belief in merit, and, finally, steer them into careers that cement this worldview.
Son Hing said these effects could be counteracted if colleges and professors spent more time talking about higher education as a shared public good. But once again, elite colleges do almost precisely the opposite: They work tirelessly to cultivate loyalty to their own unique brand. Mitchell Stevens is a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and the author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, a memoir of the year and a half he spent working in the admissions office of an unnamed bucolic New England college. Stevens says that schools try to develop clanlike emotional connections with students and alumni. Part of the motivation is to solicit contributions. Another part, Stevens says, is “so that wherever in the world those people are, they give some special deference or recognition to others who hold that identity.” This loyalty to fellow alumni is an essential part of how elite-college degrees help reproduce upper-class status.
Stevens is a fierce critic of American higher education. “The institutions that we’ve invested in and believed in as mechanisms of social mobility aren’t working,” he told me. Nothing divides America—economically, socially, and politically—like a college degree. “No one imagined that a college degree would be a castelike line in life prospects,” Stevens told me, “but that’s the world that has come to be, and that’s the world that got us Donald Trump elected in 2016.”
Stevens isn’t the only one to draw a connection between the restrictions on who gets to be part of the elite and Trumpism. Yale’s Dan Markovits and Harvard’s Michael Sandel talk about the meritocracy myth as fostering a sort of politics of humiliation. After all, meritocracy is a double-edged sword. If Harvard says that those who can afford it deserve to be there, doesn’t that suggest that those who can’t don’t?
But even as many elites lament these divisions, Stevens pointed out, applications to selective institutions are way up. Parents know that admission is their kids’ best hope against downward mobility, and are willing to do anything to secure that. “They’re doubling down on upper-class insurance,” Stevens said. For parents, this means helping their child secure an elite degree.
For the universities themselves, that insurance takes the form of an endowment, and they are literally doubling down. Since 2000, Harvard’s endowment has grown from $19.2 billion to $53.2 billion. Princeton has endowment assets of roughly $4.6 million per student—enough that, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown, it could run the college in perpetuity for free.
Yet elite universities continue to fundraise. Michael Bloomberg recently gave $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, to allow the college to become permanently “need blind,” offer no-loan financial-aid packages, and increase the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants to 20. That’s great, but don’t think about what else might be done with that money or you’ll cry. It would go much further at a public institution such as CUNY, where the majority of students receive Pell Grants.
Several years ago, Gladwell asked Stanford’s then-president, John Hennessy, whether he could imagine telling a potential donor that their money would do more for the University of California than for Stanford, which last year had an endowment of about $38 billion. “Well,” Hennessy replied, “that, uh, that would be a hard thing to do, obviously.”
Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution points to endowment fundraising as the most egregious example of what he calls “dream hoarding.” The question is simple: Will rich families and institutions accept even slightly less advantage for their children and students? Because that’s what’s required for meaningful change to occur.
The Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, draws a careful distinction between generosity, which he says is principally about the donor, and justice, which requires a deeper engagement with the underlying problem. “Generosity makes the donor feel good,” Walker says. “Justice implicates the donor.”
No one can stop Harvard, Yale, and Stanford from coming with hat in hand. It’s a free country, after all. But while the resulting donations may be generous, they are not just. Rather, they are the culminating acts of an illusion that begins at birth, and to which almost all students, alumni, and faculty at elite schools ultimately succumb: the false belief that the system to which they belong does good.
This article is adapted from Evan Mandery’s new book, Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.