Money

$330,000 in financial aid bought me a slot in the American meritocracy. Now I see its flaws

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Over the past seven years, I received more than $330,000 of need-based educational financial aid. It has taken me from middle-class Ohio to two of the most elite institutions in American education, giving me a permanent marker of upper-class status and a near guarantee of material comfort.

I grew up attending public schools in Iowa and Ohio until increasing frustration with my schooling led my family and me to reply to a flier about boarding schools. Up until then, I believed boarding schools only existed in England; I had never heard of "Exeter" or "Andover." I applied to four schools and chose to attend the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, despite knowing essentially nothing about the place, because it gave me full need-based aid.

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I do not come from a low-income family; for most of my childhood, my family's income was close to that of the median American household, which was $56,516 last year. However, at Middlesex, I had one of the lowest family incomes in the entire school: More than 70 percent of the student body did not receive any need-based aid at a school that cost over $50,000 a year for boarding students and over $40,000 a year for day students.

Many students came from families with storied histories. Many others, while not necessarily the kids of CEOs, had parents who were financiers, doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. In my senior speech to the school  —  part critique and part love letter  —  I talked about the culture clash between my upbringing in the Midwest and my years at an institution that has long been part of the Northeast's WASP culture.

After graduating from high school, I attended Stanford, which has an endowment of more than $20 billion and need-blind admission for domestic students, and where about half of the undergraduate student body qualifies for need-based financial aid. The median family income for students is $167,500 — more than three times the national average — and 52 percent of the undergraduate student body comes from families with incomes in the top 10 percent of the American income spectrum. Among elite universities, these numbers are essentially representative.

Much recent political attention has been paid to America's declining social mobility. A team of researchers estimated that while about 90 percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents, only 50 percent of children born in the 1980s did the same. Meanwhile, American income inequality has increased dramatically. The wages of the top 5 percent — and especially the top 1 percent — have skyrocketed, while the wages of the bottom half have stagnated or even lost ground.

Stanford University
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Stanford University

Such a situation is unusual for a country that has long prided itself on not having a formal aristocracy. America never had any formal barons or royal families who could pass down gargantuan landholdings to subsequent generations. It has, of course, always had elites, whether they were the wealthiest merchants of the colonial era, the largest slave plantation owners of the Old South, the "robber barons" of the Gilded Age, or the professional managerial class and hyper-wealthy financiers and CEOs of today. It is extremely likely that it will include my friends and classmates, and me.

How American meritocracy created the next aristocrats

Broadly speaking, elites of the past attempted to distinguish themselves from everyone else  —  after all, that was kind of the point. Social clubs were founded so that they could have places to hang out and implicitly build a collective consciousness. Ownership of property and companies was passed down to subsequent generations. Middlesex and Stanford, among many other schools, were founded to educate their children, creating an infrastructure of elite education that today can start as early as $47,000 a year for private preschools in New York City.

My dad is an Italian-Irish Midwesterner who works in road planning, and my mom is an immigrant from Bolivia who teaches Spanish. There are many other students at places like Middlesex and Stanford who come from backgrounds like mine or from backgrounds substantially rougher than my relatively standard upbringing.

We became elites at elite institutions, but we did not start out that way. We were allowed in because these institutions, over the course of the 20th century, decided they wanted to be not patrician but "meritocratic." They wanted to take the most academically talented, not the slackers gliding off their rich parents (that, of course, still happens, but it's harder to pull off now).

And so the current students of America's most selective schools have perfect or close to perfect SAT scores, 4.0 GPAs, as many AP classes as they can possibly take, tons of extracurricular activities, and generally less sleep than is medically recommended. The future financiers, doctors, lawyers, academics, programmers, etc. are sharp and motivated. The meritocracy has declared us to be the winners, and once it's been decided that you're a winner, it's hard to lose.

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As author Helen Andrews, who attended Yale, has put it: "Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. Nearly every chapter in the American anti-meritocracy literature makes this charge, in what is usually its most empirically reinforced chapter."

The new "meritocracy" means we have replaced direct familial bloodline as an entry point to elite status with meritocratic achievement, albeit which, with a lifetime of nurturing from the best money can buy, just so happens to be highly correlated with direct familial bloodline.

High-achieving parents who met at elite institutions move to areas mostly already populated by elites and have their kids enroll in mostly elite-populated schools and extracurriculars. If everything in someone's life is positioned to set them up for success, it's hardly surprising that such a kid is much more likely to succeed.

Besides having at least the aspiration for meritocracy, the new elite class is different in one other way from its high-society predecessor: It defines itself by how much it doesn't want to be like the old days. The old upper crust categorically banned nonwhites, viewed the culture of the commoners as degrading and beneath it, and proudly announced itself to be above everyone else.

Sociologist Shamus Khan, a child of Pakistani and Irish immigrants who went through the upper-class prep school and college circuit, describes the new elite ethic: Kids at selective and wealthy schools tend towards being "cultural omnivores," who are almost determined to watch the same movies, listen to the same music, and laugh at the same memes as anyone else. We're almost universally socially liberal, or sometimes socially radical. And almost all of us hate that highly visible personification of blithe, provincial closed-mindedness, Donald Trump.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visit Westonbirt School, one of the country's top boarding schools
Anwar Hussein Collection/ROTA | Getty Images
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visit Westonbirt School, one of the country's top boarding schools

The new elite are characterized by performative populism

We need to be more honest about what is happening here. At Middlesex and at Stanford, I have been astonished by what I can generously describe as innocent unawareness. Many people whose parents pay the full tuition of $50,000 to $60,000 per year have, without any hint of irony or discrepancy, described themselves to me as "middle class." Talking with other students on heavy financial aid, I've heard many of them describe similar situations.

Such incidents are not born of malice or foolishness; they are born of the fact that in America today, there is a pipeline of "meritocratic" excellence that has created a class that lives in a parallel world to the one in which the vast majority of the country lives. Opportunity has been sealing off into smaller geographic areas and narrower segments of the population, leading to greater and greater economic and cultural stratification.

I grew up in a town that has genuine socioeconomic diversity, but it is also quickly gentrifying and becoming unaffordable to newcomers who do not have substantial wealth. It is natural for people to benchmark their sense of the world by their personal experience of it, so as America becomes more socioeconomically separated, people will have an increasingly skewed view of America's actual diversity and their place in it.

Misstatements and borderline lies about one's place in an elite echelon continue long after graduation from elite institutions, and in many different ways.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton grew up in rural Arkansas and is frequently spoken of as a rising star in the GOP. He served in the Army, a fact that he brings up more or less constantly. In spring 2016, after Obama White House press secretary Josh Earnest remarked, "I'm confident [Cotton] couldn't differentiate heavy water [a material used in nuclear reactors] from sparkling water," Cotton fired back:

Apparently, neither Harvard nor Harvard Law was ritzy enough to expose Cotton to sparkling water, because he attended both.

It's the sort of blithe misrepresentation long practiced by elected officials like our current president: I'm not one of them; I'm one of you, the common people. But it is also part of the rhetoric that is employed on privileged campuses, by the left as well as the right: that while others might be part of this disconnected elite, the person who is speaking is not, because of their origins in or connections to literally anything that isn't considered part of that elite. As if spending years getting enveloped in a culture and getting a permanent mark of a class stamped on your résumé for the rest of your life is something that only affects other people.

Acts of performative populism that place the speaker in the crowd, which are made very explicit when done in electoral politics but pervade elite culture at large, are simply dishonest.

So what should we do?

At the elite campus policy level, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in recruiting students from middle- and lower-income backgrounds. But even if every elite college in America became substantially more socioeconomically diverse, such a change would only affect the fortunes of a few thousand students per year  —  not enough to alter deeply rooted structures of inequality. And it could only ever make the sorting of people into a tiered system a bit more strongly based on academic achievement, not actually challenging the system itself.

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NurPhoto | Getty Images

The more I read about and study these issues, the more I realize that changes need to happen on a national, systemic level. We should move education funding away from local property taxes that pour resources into schools in wealthy districts. We should enforce anti-discrimination laws to blunt the impact of legacy and modern racism on people of color. We should dismantle archaic, segregation-generating housing regulations and unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions, tax the wealthy, and move to ensure universal health coverage, a goal every other advanced democracy has already achieved.

Such policies would form at least the beginning of an attack on the false god of "meritocracy" and the beginnings of a society in which being or not being a member of elite communities would not affect your life outcomes so grotesquely.

On a more personal level, we should be more truthful, with others and with ourselves, about the situation we are in. This does not, and should not, require a performance of guilt — this has nothing to do with being a "bad" person — but we need to be honest about our relative advantages.

We should dispense with rhetoric that implies that those not born into advantage are exempt from being part of the elite class when they make it there. Nominally distancing ourselves from our privilege and pointing fingers over it does not make our society fairer; it can only shift our politics further into an intricate game of signaling while nothing is substantively debated.

The singular term "elite" is too broad and unrigorous to completely encapsulate the nuances of every aspect of the stories and identities of class in America. Relative access is still affected by innumerable factors, including geography, race, and gender, among many others. But whether or not each one of us entered elite America as a lifer or as a newcomer, by the very fact that we have been encultured in elite spaces and will forever have it on our résumés, we're in it now.

Before I went to prep school and then a selective college, I felt restless and unchallenged; these schools opened opportunities to me that changed my life. I am genuinely grateful to the donors and institutions that allowed me to study and learn and meet the frequently kind, thoughtful, and engaged people whom I am proud to call friends and colleagues. To not appreciate the gifts I have been given would be to spit in the face of those who have given me so much.

But a system in which so much of someone's life is dependent on whether they receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid is deeply broken.

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This article originally appeared on Vox.