The meritocratic lie

That admissions scandal ripped off the bandage and exposed the suppurating ulcer of the “elite” university system, and gives me a handle to vent decades of frustration. I’ve known about this for a long time, but if you try to tell people that Harvard and Stanford are profiting off a facade rather than their actual, material quality, they don’t believe you — the names of those universities have become short cuts to an illusion of earned intelligence. Read this, Higher Education and the Illusion of Meritocracy, though.

The recently revealed admissions scandal seems to have it all: Three Stooges levels of ineptitude, crude Photoshops, six-figure payoffs, corrupt coaches, and a cadre of low-level celebrities for good measure. But those who see this scandal as anything other than a moment of levity are missing the forest for the trees. The U.S. Department of Justice filings confirm what we already knew — or should have known: Elite-college admissions exists chiefly to replicate class privilege.

This became depressingly clear to me during my three years as an assistant dean of admissions at an elite college. I saw how the system is rife with inequities and loopholes; how unscrupulous wealthy people are willing to pay admissions fixers to exploit those loopholes; and how grifters adjacent to the process cash in on whatever influence they wield. As I wrote in The Chronicle Review a little more than a year ago, “Admissions at elite institutions can make a fool and a liar out of anyone.”

It’s not just the abberrant criminality of this event, though, because the whole system is rigged.

Meritocratic admissions at elite institutions is the real scam. The idea of a phony soccer player is goofy for its novelty; Division III athletes being tipped into admitted classes through a warped quota system that benefits wealthy white men is a grim reality. The construction of a fabricated profile with illegitimate test scores and extracurriculars is tragicomic; a prep-school applicant carefully curated by elite counselors, tutors, essay writers, and independent admissions advisers is routine.

In short, the real corruption of elite-college admissions is more mundane than this scandal suggests, though far more deleterious to America’s meritocratic ideals. To view this scandal as the problem is to unintentionally reinforce the actual problem: In a truly meritocratic society, higher education should correct inequity; instead, elite higher education exacerbates inequity.

Worse — even if you get in (which is unlikely if you’re not a member of a privileged class), you’re screwed and are just perpetuating a criminally capitalistic system.

Jack outlines how top colleges and universities are and have long been havens of the wealthy. In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year). In other research, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, have documented how just 14 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive schools—places like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia—come from families who make up the bottom half of U.S. income distribution.

This got me pissed off enough to make a video about it last week, although I don’t think it’s very good — it’s too long, and I could have been a lot more pithy. I should have said “fuck” more.

But then this week I watched The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and realized that she’s just another symptom of the whole rotten system. She was a Stanford drop-out, which isn’t an indictment of Stanford … it says the system is screwed up when people attend that university, not for the knowledge they can learn there — which is the core function of the university, which they do very well — but for making the connections that will make them rich and be the entry way to the 1%. Holmes dropped out as soon as she realized that she didn’t actually need to learn engineering, or biochemistry, or medicine, or pharmacology, or any of the actual utility of a university education. She comes from a family with connections, she could make more connections with bald-faced lying. The chief lesson she learned from that “elite” university is that the pretense of merit is more valuable than the substance of merit.

She didn’t have to convince anyone in biomedicine. She knew where the power lies: in old white men. In James Mattis and George Schultz, Sam Nunn and Henry Fucking-Burn-In-Hell Kissinger. She got the backing of Rupert Murdoch and Larry Ellison and Bill Clinton. None of these people have any competence in biomedicine (one could even argue that they don’t have much competence in anything, other than leeching off the public, which they are very, very good at). The corruption runs all the way from an overly ambitious and not very knowledgeable 19 year old, to retired heads of state who’ve been coasting on wealth and power to more wealth and power.

You want to know where the rot in the “elite” universities leads? Straight to Elizabeth Holmes, the poster girl for pseudo-meritocracy. It was so predictable that on the day the Wall Street Journal broke the story of the Theranos fraud, Holmes was unavailable because she was off being inducted into the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows. Of course she was. Rich liars are exactly the kind of people they want at the top of university administration.

Seriously, look at the Theranos board. It’s a web of connections to other wealthy people, nothing more. If you see any of those names on any company anywhere, run. They’re empty figureheads who’ll screw everything up. Holmes belongs in prison, but so do all those untouchable fat cats who manipulate the system.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Theranos board. It’s a web of connections to other wealthy people, nothing more. … empty figureheads who’ll screw everything up.

    Kinda reminds me of the new Fox Corp board.

  2. erichoug says

    Yet another one to file under “Yeah, no shit!”

    This is just like the celebrity sexual harassment one

    These things are, literally, known by everyone and for decades everyone pretended that it wasn’t happening. Maybe this is something to do with the current generation. I do find them way less likely to put up with bullshit.

  3. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Listened to “On the Media” on NPR this weekend–and appropriately enough they discussed the origins of the term meritocracy–in a satirical novel describing a dystopian future Britain where wealth and power are determined not by birth, but rather by “merits” attained as a result of the experience, education, etc. a person has access to by virtue of…well…their birth. This gives rise to “meritocracy”–the merit of the aristocracy.

    It was the first I’d heard this story, and I’ve been chuckling every time I hear someone use the term meritocracy in any but an ironic sense.

  4. consciousness razor says


    Holmes was awarded the 2015 Horatio Alger Award, making her the youngest recipient in its history.

    Hmm, my irony meter just went from rags to riches … by which I mean it exploded, since nobody knows what that phrase means anymore.

    Wikipedia really should have content warnings for things like this. I did not see that one coming.

  5. thirdmill301 says

    And what’s especially infuriating is all the people who still think affirmative action is the problem. Every time a minority gets admitted to Harvard, some poor plutocrat’s kid has to go somewhere else.
    Let’s make a deal. I’ll agree to getting rid of affirmative action if we also get rid of legacy admissions.

  6. says

    Actually William Foege is a very distinguished scholar of public health. And a lot of those people are accomplished biologists and physicians who really should have known better. They obviously didn’t ask questions, but they aren’t all empty suits. I would actually say it’s worse than that.

  7. chrislawson says

    “Never believe in a meritocracy in which no one is funny-looking.” —Teresa Nielsen Hayden

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    And now I’m wondering if there’s a connection between belief in meritocracy, and the Just World Fallacy.

    Isn’t the answer “Yes, duhh”?

    See also: the mostly-fiction known as “The American Dream”.

    Obligatory link to George Carlin’s rant on the topic.

  9. Muz says

    There’s a bit in America Beauty where the real estate guy describes why he dresses well and says something like “I believe that in order to be successful one must at all times present the image of success”
    And it’s a joke! It’s this cheesy line from the well cast soap actor who just comes across as a fake human and everyone laughed at it in the popular movie from the nineties.

    20 years on it’s Theranos’s entire business strategy. (as wel as top shelf universties. Sure there’s never really been a period where it wasn’t true to some extent about business. But things haven’t got any more self aware is all I’m saying)

  10. bassmanpete says

    On a smaller, but no less corrupt, scale: Back in the ’90s I was attempting to sell computer-related equipment to companies in Melbourne, some of them quite well known. I discovered that several of the purchasing officers wouldn’t consider dealing with me unless there was something in it for them. I didn’t oblige if you’re wondering.

  11. specialffrog says

    Muz: that line goes at least as far back as Larochefoucauld in the 17th century. It was one of his maxims.

  12. Muz says

    I have no doubt. It’s fascinating how it seems like it’ll always work on people at some point or another. People with lots of money who are supposedly smart too In the Drop Out podcast about this case they tell how the grandson of Holmes’ earliest backer was one of the first people to blow the whistle on the whole operation. The old man eventually came around and accepted the evidence, to his credit, but the whole time he was being told what was going on, by somone from the inside, he would just say “I’m sure you’re mistaken. I know Elizabeth. I’ve spoken to her many times. She wouldn’t do such things”. He knew nothing about any of this. He had no knowledge of the technology or the fields she was claiming virttual magic in (and any microbiologist dismissed the company immediately, but who wants to talk to cynical naysays like that)
    But she’s worth all the faith and billions of dollars. Because…she speaks confidently and has a deep voice, apparently.

  13. says

    If you read the John Carreyrou book Bad Blood that details the Theranos fraud, the funny thing about Rupert Murdoch is that he was courted by Theranos as an investor in the hopes that he would kill the WSJ’s story. Murdoch refused even though it might cost him his investment. I read that and I was just like, “Holy shit, Rupert Murdoch is not a 100% corrupt asshole.” Not that 99% is all that much better but still, it was surprising.

  14. consciousness razor says

    the funny thing about Rupert Murdoch is that he was courted by Theranos as an investor in the hopes that he would kill the WSJ’s story. Murdoch refused even though it might cost him his investment. I read that and I was just like, “Holy shit, Rupert Murdoch is not a 100% corrupt asshole.”

    Hmm… it’s understandable that you’re not too prepared to set your expectations very high for Murdoch. However, I don’t find this surprising and still get a corrupt asshole vibe here. We’re talking about someone investing in a company which they know is trying to suppress a journalist. In other words, he was not exposing what that company was trying to do, just looking the other way and hoping to make a profit.

    It’s not hard to imagine that he thought it was too risky to do what they wanted, that it wasn’t worth his time, that he wouldn’t be adequately compensated (in addition to the returns he was already supposed to receive), or what have you. Prudential judgements like that, entirely self-serving ones, are definitely compatible with 100% pure corrupt assholery.

  15. rgmani says

    In his video, PZ says

    They took spaces that better students could have filled … The only consolation … is that those displaced students would have attended a state school or liberal arts college and earned a degree … I don’t think they were harmed by this policy

    This is where I disagree. Those students were harmed. I am completely on board with the notion that you can get just as good an education from a “lesser” school as you can from an “elite” one. That’s not where the harm lies. The problem comes in the form of job opportunities when you graduate. Let me give you an example. I did my graduate studies in Computer Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Around 6 miles from U of M is another school – Eastern Michigan University. U of M is a state school, but most of the organizations that rate/rank colleges would call it an elite school. EMU is, well, not so elite according to these folks. One thing I noticed pretty quickly after I came here is that the elite status that U of M had brought with it some advantages when it came time to look for jobs. We had companies from all over the country recruiting there. A lot fewer companies would recruit at EMU. Many recruiters would be willing to come from the far corners of the country to U of M but were not willing to drive the additional 6 miles from there to EMU.

    That is the huge advantage that graduating from an elite school brings. When it comes to finding jobs, you already have your foot in the door simply by virtue of having attended an elite school. Of course you still have to do your bit by knowing your subject and doing well in your interviews but the importance of that first step cannot be exaggerated. A lot of companies have a list of target schools from which they recruit. If you are from one of those target schools, your resume gets looked at. If not, it often disappears without a trace into this black hole. Is that the way it should be? Certainly not – but that is very often the way things are.


  16. rgmani says

    Here is a rather interesting (and depressing) discussion on how some of the parents involved might get away without any penalty for what they did. They are talking specifically about Lori Loughlin but it probably applies to many other parents.