We most often hear about inequality in terms of super-rich corporations and individuals or families. But the same gulf between haves and have-nots has opened in U.S. colleges and universities. Since the pandemic began, 570,000 jobs have disappeared in American academic institutions. More than 75 percent of college faculty in the U.S. are contingent workers or not on the tenure track. Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. colleges rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions. The joke that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm is not so far off.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the value of these endowment funds is greater than the GDP of New Zealand, Finland, or Chile. In the last five years, the U.S. has fallen in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, but its elite universities have risen in the world rankings — and gotten richer. America’s richest colleges and universities, in effect, exist in a country of their own (though paid for in part with the public’s money).
This inequity reflects a restructuring of political power toward an aristocracy. In historical perspective, we are seeing the collapse of the great post-World War II democratization of post-secondary arts and sciences education alongside the appearance of a meritocracy alienated from the public and at odds with democracy. If anyone points out the role of elite education in the reproduction of inequality today, Americans tend to see it as flawed or compromised meritocracy rather than “true” meritocracy. But such responses are signs of a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The “merit” of meritocracy has nothing to do with the worth or value of people as human beings and citizens. It has something to do with intelligence and ability, but also a great deal with résumé-building — which for some starts before kindergarten.
Meritocracy and democracy are not the same thing. The goal of meritocracy is to produce, or reproduce, an elite. There is nothing necessarily democratic about that. The Puritans who founded Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were very good at building stable and exclusive institutions, for many reasons, including that the elite, for them, were the elect: those specially chosen to receive God’s grace, the sanctified and saved few among the masses of the damned. In the early United States, however, New Englanders quickly discovered, to their dismay, that the fact that they thought themselves God’s elect did not mean much to many Americans, and they would be hard pressed to win national elections. Thomas Jefferson feared and reviled the Puritan schools, and founded the University of Virginia to counter what he saw as their anti-democratic influence.