Finding The American Academic Elite

If you are American, chances are you don’t believe that there is such a thing as an academic elite in the United States. This is because Americans strongly value the idea that the United States is a meritocracy – a society where anyone can get ahead based on their talent and hard work alone. For this reason, Americans tend to deny any kind of nepotism or elitism, since it shatters the idea that everyone in the United States is equal.

What Does the Ivy League Mean to the Americans?
In one word, precious. Located in the northeastern corner of the United States, the Ivy League is an athletic conference, comprising teams from eight private academic institutions. These include-

  • Cornell University
  • Columbia University
  • Brown University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

Seven of these institutions were established during the colonial times, and have consistently ranked among the best colleges in the world ever since.

Besides athletic tussles and an exemplary academic tradition, these colleges carry quite the reputation for being nitpickingly selective and elitist.

Power and Elite Universities
Consider this one question: How many high-power politicians and businessmen do you know of that did not attend Harvard, Yale, or another big-name school in the Ivy League or on the West Coast? It’s likely that the answer is zero or nearly zero. You might claim that this is because only society’s brightest and most talented people are suitable for those roles, and the brightest and most talented people usually attend elite universities. On the surface, this argument makes sense, but if we dig a little deeper, we’ll see that it’s not quite that simple.

The High Cost of Success
The common assumption that society’s super-intelligent members all attend Ivy League schools ignores one very important factor: money. It’s true that a very small number of outstanding students receive scholarships and grants to attend big-name universities, but not everyone can get a scholarship to Harvard. In fact, most Harvard students pay staggeringly high tuition fees. Including room and board, books, and other expenses, a Harvard undergraduate might pay $60,000 per year to attend the school.

Who are Ivy League Students?
Not everyone can afford to go to elite universities, and not all smart, talented students can get scholarships. These aren’t exactly wild claims, but they point directly to the existence of the academic elite I mentioned earlier. People without the means to attend big-name schools are excluded from what many have called the most important aspect of an Ivy League education: the network. It has been remarked many times in the past that, while an Ivy League education is good, the opportunities afforded to students simply by being part of the exclusive “club” of Ivy League graduates is much more valuable than the quality of the education. It is not too surprising then, when we see that Ivy League schools have an acceptance rate that hovers anywhere between 6 to 16%.

Is the Academic Elite a Conspiracy Theory?
If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, go back to the original question: How many elite members of society did not attend Ivy League schools? Now that we know that talent and intelligence aren’t necessarily the deciding factors when it comes to who goes to Yale and who doesn’t, we can see that the prevalence of Ivy Leaguers in high places is not necessarily merit-based. It isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s simply the structure of society.

Power and Diversity
What are the implications of this idea? Well, for starters, it means that there is a lack of diversity in thought at the highest levels of society. All the most elite politicians and businessmen tend to think alike. This is partially because they all attended the same universities, but it’s even more important that they all came from similar backgrounds. Elite colleges and universities might make an effort to increase the diversity of their student body in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, but the socioeconomic backgrounds of their students remain pretty much uniform.

Is America a Meritocracy?
Another, more sinister implication of the American academic elite is related to equality and power. Americans like to believe that, in the United States, anyone can get ahead, even becoming president if they have enough raw talent and are willing to work for it. Because of the way the higher education system is set up, however, this isn’t really true. The United States is not as much of a meritocracy as Americans like to believe, and until the problem of the academic elite is addressed, this fact won’t change.