Book Review: The Cost of an Elite Education
By Debra Liese
Mitchell L. Stevens, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites
Lacy Crawford, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
If your teenager is granted entry to a prestigious university this spring, a few recent books on the expanding class gap in elite education can assure you of three things: 1) By the time your seventeen-year-old starts fretting about admission essays, it’s already too late (Creating a Class). 2) The final lap can be grueling, and often a mirror of modern parenting missteps (Early Decision). 3) Not winning the race may be a victory (Excellent Sheep).
Americans are partial to romantic notions about education and equal chances. Yet according to Mitchell Stevens, the author of Creating a Class, who worked for a year and a half in the admissions office of an unnamed, prestigious New England college, the appearance of class neutrality is created by exceptions and not the rule. Stevens observes that we have become a society where “terms of college admission are also the goals of ideal child rearing,” a situation that favors the affluent. As if that isn’t enough, he disabuses us of any hopeful fantasies about whether or not some prestigious schools prioritize students who can pay full tuition. Spoiler alert: they totally do.
But isn’t complicity in the perpetuation of inequality the trade-off that must be made to win at life? Not according to former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book, Excellent Sheep, is quick to remind parents that “screwing other people’s kids” isn’t actually all that advantageous to their own. Elite students, he argues, lack the moral imagination of their public-educated counterparts; they are great at jumping through hoops, but terrible at taking real chances. He doesn’t blame the kids but a system that excels at “retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position.” It’s an intelligent and bracing critique.
Of the journalists who gave Deresiewicz’s argument sympathetic consideration, many hailed from the Ivies themselves. Will these now-enlightened folks be the last generation in their lineage to do so? Not likely. The quest for more status is culturally ingrained, even though, as he points out, “Status doesn’t get you anything except the knowledge that you have it.”
Stevens concurs explaining that “degrees from highly selective private schools have proven to offer only modest [financial] net benefits over the life course.” But this reality does little to diminish the allure. He reports that “attraction of the campus” ranks highly as a deciding factor for students, calling the “sensual aspects of class” one of the more ignored facets of educational sociology. As a society, we place extraordinary value on a mystique that remains poorly studied, while madly ranking our centers of higher learning to justify our attraction.
Deresiewicz does much to demystify the world he hails from, and he clearly means to rattle cages. “How about doing something that you can’t put on your resume (or brag about on Facebook)?” he challenges. Confusions, genuine time off, and detours from their path help kids find new directions, he insists, whereas the “approved” ways in which elite students tend to attempt self-discovery (think language programs abroad, resume-conscious service projects) fall short, because they “ultimately feed back into the achievement game.” He describes something real and pervasive: a compulsive quest for prestige for its own sake. “There is no top,” he writes, with some grimness. It is hard to argue with his logic: “Nobody needs eleven extracurriculars…unless the other guy has ten.”
For those of us whose own college years were not spent accruing prestigious internships, so much as getting our hearts broken or “wandering, literally or metaphorically” (Deresiewicz is all about the benefits of this type of thing), there is something satisfying in reading these affirmations about one’s misspent youth. And yet, there’s also the sense of not being the target audience. At some point in nodding along with his indictment of Amy Chua’s parenting methods, which he calls an “extreme version of [American] upper middle class practices,” and reminiscing about my own apparently edifying “lousy apartment with friends,” I wondered if this book is more useful as self-help for the already-entitled. “If you grow up with less, you are better able to deal with having less. That in itself is a kind of freedom,” he writes.
If that’s true enough, it’s easy for him to say, seems to be the response of his critics. New York Magazine calls Deresiewicz out for “the new privilege [of] loudly denouncing privilege”. Yet a public university grad would easily risk the appearance of sour grapes. As Stevens writes, “The moral worth of our own biographies is so deeply implicated in the system that is hard for us to appraise it with critical detachment.”
For parents, too, of course, the problem of detachment is considerable. Lacy Crawford’s philosophical and engaging novel, Early Decision offers a fictionalized take on the toxicity of parental influence in the upper class college admissions race in the winner-take-all society Deresiewicz decries. The narrator, Anne Arlington, independent “college whisperer,” is hired by parents to assist their pedigreed, but hopelessly vanilla offspring with college essays. By her account, the typical applicant is, “A tanked guppy with some nice streaks of color, but nothing different from the zillions swimming alongside of him.”
According to Stevens, “affluent families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children.” To Crawford, therein lies the problem. Like Deresiewicz, she draws attention to an obsession with conditioning a kind of appearance over real growth. “To confess to a problem”, she says of one of her characters, a reluctant legacy destined for Duke, “was to risk her mother life-coaching the very blood out of her own heart.”
In Crawford’s book, parents want to give their children everything, and mostly end up endowing them with a kind of cultivated sterility. Crawford’s careful exploration of the paradoxes of class is admirable; her characters are spoiled and uncertain, but not unsympathetic. Their stories are set in contrast to those of a few exceptional kids who attend the overcrowded high school where Anne volunteers, whose hesitation is “the result of years of being ignored.” When Anne dreams of showing these students’ files to the parents of the rich clients, just to “demonstrate what it looked like when a student was exceptional,” she wonders, “Would disillusionment help them to admire their own children for who they really were?”
Taken together the books’ biggest upshot for parents of today’s teenagers is that the prevailing higher educational system isn’t the best at letting anyone—from Deresiewicz’s “thoroughbreds” to Crawford’s fetishized lower-income applicants—be seen for who they really are. Another is, if we are to become more attuned to those truths ourselves, we also must let go of our desire to control our children’s educational futures. If it’s easy for parents to agree that college should prepare young adults for the Real World, the harder question to answer is, which kind of experience offers a version of it that is most moral, most practical, or even most real? Is it the “long shot,” the school inevitably tied to privilege and class, or is it the public “safety” school, egalitarian, but lacking the assurance of status? These books are short on practical tips for parents, but big on philosophical questions. In a just society, what’s best for our kids, surely, is what’s democratic for everyone else’s as well.
If only that weren’t so hard to remember when the fat envelope arrives, or doesn’t.
Debra Liese is a writer and a book publicist. She lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three children.