The ‘elites’ will be fine, the merely competent will suffer

We sometimes speak of the American university, as if it is all one thing, where you’ll attend and be pampered for four years and pop out at graduation to a job and a well-paid career. Corey Robin exposes the inequities of the university system by comparing City University of New York, a massive public university, to the Ivy League colleges.

For decades, a handful of boutique colleges and powerhouse universities have served as emblems of our system of higher education. If they are not the focus of discussion, they are the subtext, shaping our assumptions about the typical campus experience. This has remained true during the pandemic. The question of reopening has produced dozens of proposals, but most of them are tenable only for schools like Brown; they don’t obtain in the context of Brooklyn College. The coronavirus has seeded a much-needed conversation about building a more equal society. It’s time for a similar conversation about the academy.

In academia, as in the rest of society, a combination of public and private actors directs wealth to those who need it least. While cuny struggles to survive decades of budget cuts—and faces, in the pandemic, the possibility of even more—donors lavish elite colleges and universities with gifts of millions, even billions, of dollars. Sometimes these donations fund opportunities for low-income students, but mostly they serve as tax-deductible transfers to rich, private institutions, depriving the public of much-needed revenue. What taxes federal and state governments do collect may be returned to those institutions in the form of hefty grants and contracts, which help fund operating budgets that Brooklyn College can only dream of. This is the song of culture in our society. The bass line is wealth and profit; the melody is diversity and opportunity.

It seems that massive endowments only get more massive year after year, while the smaller public colleges are reduced to begging for scraps from state governments. We’re expected to do just as much as universities swimming in money from wealthy alumni, for less, with less support and less press.

There’s also a significant distinction: rich people send their kids to the already-rich private universities; everyone sends their kids to the community colleges, the state universities, the small public colleges. When you pretend an Ivy League college is representative, and when you starve the state-funded institutions, you are making the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer. You are also killing a major engine of class mobility, which I sometimes suspect is the actual purpose.

Yet, for all the talk of the poor and students of color at the Ivy League, the real institutions of mobility in the United States are underfunded public universities. Paxson [Brown University president and the deputy chair of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, because that’s the kind of person who ends up running wealthy universities] may believe that “a university campus is a microcosm of any major city in the U.S.,” as she told NPR, but cuny is no microcosm. With nearly two hundred and seventy-five thousand students and forty-five thousand staff—a population larger than that of many American cities—it is what the Latin root of the word “university” tells us higher education should be: the entire, the whole. More than seventy-five per cent of our undergraduate students are nonwhite. Sixty-one per cent receive Pell Grants, and the same percentage have parents who did not graduate from college. At City College and Baruch College, seventy-six and seventy-nine per cent of students, respectively, start out in the bottom quintile of the income distribution and wind up in one of the top three quintiles. For hundreds of thousands of working-class students, in other words, a cash-starved public university is their gateway to the middle or upper-middle class.

In my career, I’ve been educated at state universities and only taught a state universities. I’ve visited the famous big name schools, like Princeton and UPenn and Yale, and mainly been struck by the disparities in privilege, not any differences in quality of content. We have to work harder in state colleges, and even harder in community colleges, but we bring the same information to the students, and the same opportunities. The only advantage to the expensive private schools is the opportunity to mingle with other people who can afford them — you don’t learn more, if that’s what you’re after, you just get to make connections with other spoiled rich kids.

What worries me now is that I see state legislatures, which are always keen to take a butcher knife to education at all levels, seeing the pandemic and economic failure as a reason to cut education to the bone, which is incredibly short-sighted, fails to see the need for building long-term investment in the human infrastructure of our society, and is going to hit the poorest population, the people who have the most to gain, hardest, while the wealthy institutions are unaffected. The economic inequities in the US have been expanding for a long time, and are a source of inefficiency and corruption already, and they’re just going to grow further in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Boy, the extinction spiral is a wild and depressing ride.


  1. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    It starts well before college. Local funding and control of school districts means that they effectively reproduce the current class structure of the district in the next generation. I grew up in a blue-collar, lower middle class area. That meant that I had to bust my butt to have any hope of taking calculus, advanced chemistry or physics. I never had any formal financial education beyond how to fill out a check and balance a checkbook. Friends of mine from wealthier districts had mock stock markets in class.

    After a redistricting, I wound up in a different high school, with much more opportunity, special programs for accelerated learning, even computer programming. Most important, due to overcrowding, school was open year round, with 6 quarters of which we were to choose 4. I chose 6 and graduated with 1.5 times as many credits as needed, including several AP.

    So, yes, I worked my ass off, but it was only because I wound up at a different school and had great mentors that I even had the opportunity to work my ass off!

    We are a “meritocracy” only in the original satirical sense of that word.

  2. unclefrogy says

    Boy, the extinction spiral is a wild and depressing ride.

    true true.
    treating education and the population as a whole like that is in the end counterproductive if economic growth and technological advancement are your goal. The idea of maintaining the class structure as it is, seems to me to run counter to the history of the U.S.
    Pointlessly limiting the opportunities to some small percent of the population is in the end self-defeating. It only leads to ossification and stagnation internally and defeat internationally because other countries like China or India or other “emerging societies” are not following that path. They are investing in education and rightly see it as a path to prosperity in the global market and an opportunity that the U.S. seems to be forgoing to maintain its existing class structure.
    the same class structure that has been so destructive for them in the colonial era in the 19th century.
    uncle frogy

  3. nowamfound says

    heck they are doing their best to encourage home schooling so looks like they are out to get all schools

  4. says

    If we had had actual opposition to the right wing for the last 30 years, things would probably be different. Instead we had “the lesser of two evils” over and over and over again, to the point where the Democrats now front Joe Biden, a guy who cares so little about integrity that after getting caught plagiarizing in 1988 he did it again, and even people on this board who you would think would be smart enough to know better are rolling over for him.

  5. John Morales says

    The Vicar:

    Instead we had “the lesser of two evils” over and over and over again …

    You are so very tedious. We had that, except when we didn’t.

    Are you suggesting we should have had “the greater of two evils” as much as possible?


  6. wzrd1 says

    PZ, when you were young, just as when I was young, few went to college.
    We performed a grand experiment and went with College Loan Sharks and college for damned near everybody, even inventing degrees guaranteed or your money back, a job at McDonald’s at best.
    A short time after Saint Reagan, may his nuts enjoy eternal fire, pushed for engineers and scientists, I was overjoyed. Indeed, when Bush the Elder claimed the office, while he was pushing a circle jerk service economy, I and my peers suggested an R&D economy, let the other saps build what we invented.
    He went for the circle jerk, we all take turns in the middle.

    I never attended college, seeing the loan amounts and seeing the compensation rate dwindle, I avoided the early phase of student loan shark insanity, learned on my own and can converse intelligently with medical researchers, surprising them with a fairly broad, but shallow knowledge of their career field, as well as physicists and astronomers. Again, fairly broad by shallow, with special interest subjects always acquired to competence.
    Still, discussing a technical point in detail does not a subject matter expert make, I am a subject matter expert in a few fields, due to hard won knowledge and experience over the decades.
    So, I’ll wisely refrain from committing any acts of brain surgery on myself, or any other surgery beyond lancing a boil, which the village idiot could be trained to do.

    What we’re seeing is an overcorrection in education, sponsored by some serious sons of bitches, not yet realizing the financial pain they’d cause the economy by lowering higher education, but still satisfying their Nineteen Eighty-Four social plan.

    BTW, U of Michigan is cutting money globally, especially in the medical programs. One billion dollars worth of cuts, including faculty and staff salary cuts.
    The CEO cut his own pay by 20%, professors are asked to accept pay cuts from 5 – 15%.
    Leaving us all with:

    Did I give my age away again?

    @John Morales, when one suffers the differences between two evils, does not evil always remain?

  7. KG says

    rolling over for him. – The Vicar@4

    Let’s have some actual quotes of people on this board “rolling over” for Biden – as opposed to saying that if the choice in November is between him and Trump – as seems almost inevitable, unless either dies or becomes otherwise unable to run – then it would be better if Biden won. Or else admit that you’re a liar.

  8. John Morales says


    @John Morales, when one suffers the differences between two evils, does not evil always remain?

    Well, yes; that is the very premise.

  9. publicola says

    If the trend toward severe social stratification continues at this rate, the result will be severe social upheaval. We saw this in the riots of the Sixties. Oh, it’s coming, better sooner than later.

  10. unclefrogy says

    when one suffers the differences between two evils, does not evil always remain?

    that is true in-principle I guess. It may be some what different in the real world of people and politics most of the time.
    there are few people who are distinctly evil in the world. I do not know if I could say the the old bald guy in the WH is evil or not, but I can say that he is dangerously and ruinously incompetent petty, vindictive, self-centered and profoundly ignorant.
    Biden is at best a conventional democratic politician. he has some good points and some bad ones. he does not appear to be totally ignorant incompetent completely self absorbed or vindictive. is he a “cowboy” when it comes to international intervention probably, does he fawn over bankers maybe. is he engaged in a criminal enterprise to enrich himself and some chosen cronies I do not think so. our choice seems unavoidable at this time.
    unless you can get a mass movement with huge demonstration in all the major cities in the country and shut down commerce across the country by convincing the vast majority of the people you are correct and that they and we should demand something much better you are just talking theoretical bullshit and what you say is unimportant to the business at hand.
    uncle frogy

  11. Bruce H says

    It seems to me, watching from the sidelines, that public education has already been cut to the bone. Now the vultures are sucking at the marrow. If things keep going the way they have been for the last forty years, we won’t have a public education system to resurrect. We’ll have to start fresh, building new systems out of the ashes of the old once the parasites have destroyed the host they need to survive. As the magic 8-ball might say: outlook uncertain.

  12. Jado says

    “…is going to hit the poorest population, the people who have the most to gain, hardest, while the wealthy institutions are unaffected. The economic inequities in the US have been expanding for a long time, and are a source of inefficiency and corruption already, and they’re just going to grow further in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

    It’s a feature, not a bug. If you think this is an accident, you’re fooling yourself. Uneducated hopeless serfs is the end game, grateful for any menial job and whatever scraps the Lords and Ladies are willing to part with. After all, you only need so many engineers, but you need a lot of warehouse staff. At least until the engineers invent sufficiently-advanced robots…

    The beginning of the movie “Elysium” is the platonic ideal of the Master Class. They just have to work on the end part.