Higher education. University. Prestige. Ambition. Future security.
How did we feel when applying to university?
We were told that going to university was the only way to succeed. Depending on where and by whom we were raised, our ideas on university may vary, but our thought process was probably similar if we find ourselves enrolled in a higher education institution. Go to university. Go to a good one. Guarantee yourself a future. This viewpoint is very much a reality of our generation which results in a new emphasis on the university applications and university choices which occupy great part of our minds as we approach the end of high school. Prestigious universities and higher education institutions know our thought process very well. Regardless of your background, there is a high chance you’ve heard of some prestigious worldwide universities, whether it was on social media or tv shows. You may have thought “I will go there”, “that is my dream” or just rejected the idea as a far off possibility that would never materialize. Or anything in between. Yet your reactions would have been part of understanding a broader, bigger question of who gets into these dreamy universities.
As you may have understood by now, this article is about elitism in universities, especially prestigious universities, and how it feeds in a cycle of inequality that reduces social mobility and reinforces socio-economic inequalities. It is a complex topic to explore, and so many arguments and counterarguments to be made. And to make sense of it, I will start with why I am writing about this.
Sciences Po - the French Harvard?
I decided to write this article after seeing on campus students from the UNI student syndicate petition against the removal of the written exam in the French admission process to Sciences Po. As an international student, I know little on the topic. As a matter of fact, I was unaware that French students had a different and more elaborate procedure from international students. So the fact that Frederic Mion, the Sciences Po Paris director, had decided to drastically change the program for admission of French students at Sciences Po came as a surprise to me.
For reference, so far the French admission procedure was made up of three phases, including three written exams and the changes recently proposed would remove the three written exams and put more emphasis on the student dossier and the grades received in school to compensate for such absence.
The primary reason for the changes is the need for Sciences Po, along with all French universities, to be integrated into the Parcoursup system of French university admission, that requires a change in timing and structure compared to what Sciences Po currently follows. The second reason Sciences Po is inclusivity. In the past, the written exam had been strongly criticized because it had led to the creation of a business for exam preparation that favoured students from higher-income families that could afford it. Thus, the removal of the exam would mean a fairer admission procedure. The students from the UNI syndicate have their reservations about this new policy because of the importance that the student dossier would have on the admission decision. The organization claims that not even Sciences Po would be able to discern the differences and imbalances in different schools in France and the weight put into extracurriculars would mark a discriminant on different backgrounds and accessibility to non-academic activities. Thus, UNI students suggest that the written exam should remain in place, but that Sciences Po itself should offer a preparatory, free platform to study for them. Realistically, that may be an unaffordable expense. But it highlights a great imbalance in the French system of opportunities both within academia and not for people of different incomes.For instance, OECD’s latest research proves that France’s education system is greatly unequal when it comes to local differences. Living in one neighborhood compared to another, based on economic factors, is reflected in exam results and learning skills the students develop, leaving the poorest disadvantaged. Economic inequality is also palpable in the choice and availability of extracurriculars that would look great on a CV: playing an instrument or being part of a sports team have a price that some households simply cannot afford.
Sciences Po is one of the most important institutions in France, a symbol of the political elite and a milestone for anyone who wants to pursue a political career in France. As a matter of fact, most of the French presidents and prime ministers in French history have attended. So if the admission procedure is unbalanced and favours a socio-economic reality that is not representative of France as a whole this possibly leads to a cycle of political elites that, just like the university where they were formed, is incapable of putting different social classes on the spectrum of needs in France.
Oxbridge - Ancient Institutions and Discriminatory Past (or present?)
The history of Oxbridge with discrimination is ancient and not a hidden one. Oxford and Cambridge are England's oldest universities, representing excellence alongside competitiveness and ambition in the UK and the world. The university count as alumni some of the most brilliant scientists, and famous writers, among others, and all of them tend to have one feature in common: they are white males.
The two universities didn’t even grant degrees to women until the 20th century and the first black student to have graduated from Oxford is reported to have gotten his degree in the 1870s.
So, it is no doubt that the two universities have a history of sexism and racism, that in modern days can still be seen in the elitist admission procedure. For instance, in the years between 2015 to 2017, one-quarter of Oxford colleges did not admit a single black student. And Cambridge is not better: between 2012 and 2016 at least one college did not accept a single black student.
This is linked to university elitism because of the deep imbalances present among social classes and ethnicities in Britain still today, and in the rest of Europe. The topic of racism and how it affects class problems will not be covered in this article but is definitely something to think of when looking at elitism in the Western world. Elitism is predominantly white. We must acknowledge it to be better.
To dig a bit deeper in the elitist admission procedure of the two most loved British university one must look at the differences in admission percentages in public and private school students, starting with Eton, school that send 60 to 100 students to Oxbridge each year out of 260 approximately in a graduating class, while the percentage of admission for Oxbridge is usually around 16%.
This is just an example, but it shows a pattern: private schools have the resources that public schools do not have to hire a teacher who studied at Oxbridge, or have preparatory classes for interviews and applications.
This disproportionality feeds into an unhealthy cycle. Oxford and Cambridge are the richest universities in the UK, the ones with the highest amount of resources. They admit an overwhelming majority of students who come from expensive private schools, who most likely have families supporting them financially and end up becoming some of Britain's high paid elite in the future, thus creating a circle of money that once more, gives power to the rich. In these factors, it is easy to compare Sciences Po and Oxbridge. They are both shaping elites, both deciding the future of their countries, but doing so in a way that favours those who are already in power.
Ivy Leagues - Scandals and Facts
The United States was recently hit by a great scandal: the American College Admission University Scandal, which revealed that some parents were literally paying for their kids to get into good universities. The fees to do so were not lower than $15,000 and went as high as $6.5 million, proving that in this complicated scheme of fraud, money can literally buy admission in college.
The scheme itself is proves how easily it is to cheat into a system that was thought to be impenetrable, and on which many kids rely on their hopes of being admitted to Ivy Leagues or generally prestigious universities in the USA. More interestingly, however, this scandal proved that a backdoor into university admission does exist, and it seems to be legal.
According to many of the parents convicted in the College Admission Scandal itself, they were not aware of doing something illegal. They were led to believe that the money went as a donation to a specific university, making their action legal.
As a matter of fact, it is well documented that it is common for the 1% of the world, to make huge donations to Ivy Leagues right before their children start the application process: an encouragement to make the admission office review their case more carefully and possibly confirming less to the general procedure. An example is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, admitted to Harvard after his father made a 2.5 million dollar donation to the school.
Deans of universities have preference lists with candidates who are children of alumni who have given large donations to the universities, just before their kids applied. In a way, the reality of this strategy in itself is an admission scandal.
Yet, this is not the only problematic part of the application.
Although being deemed holistic, the admission to university, especially high ranking ones like Ivy Leagues, highly rely on one factor: SATs.
To generalize, there are two types of people in this world: those who think SATs are fair and those who think they aren’t. I am going to start discussing the latter idea.
SATs have a history of racism and classism. It has to do with the way they are formulated and appeal and relate to a middle-class, white audience. It has to do with the history of institutionalized racism in America, for which black students are on average more likely to find themselves in schools that offer less support, or neighbourhoods that are less funded and that overall send a message that “their education is worth less”. But once more, it has to do with money.
The SAT and standardized test preparation industry is huge. For preparatory classes, students can pay over 2000 dollars, demonstrating the clear links between wealth and having a good SAT score, which overall links back to the likeability of going into a prestigious university.
Nonetheless, some say that by removing SATs, like some universities have been doing in recent years, discrimination and elitism will prevail even more. By removing the SATs, students from private schools and more funds, or those who were able to show participation in very expensive extracurriculars, will prevail over someone with great academic strength and interest, yet less opportunities. In short, just like it appeared in the French discussion around Sciences Po written exam, without SATs the only way to discriminate between admissions is by looking at official academic records and extracurricular activities, facts that can discriminatory based on where you live, what school you attend and the means and times you can dedicate to these factors, rather than working, or helping your parents in their day to day life.
In short, university admission to Ivy Leagues is problematic, because it highly relies on money, family legacies and being of the upper-middle class.
When I first started talking about writing this article, one of the responses I got was “but is elitism that bad?”
It is often claimed that it is so that university can maintain their prestige.
But I believe there is a need to redefine prestige, and what it means and implies. I have given you the example of three elites, three countries. In all three, students that come out of these institutions, Sciences Po, Oxbridge, Ivy Leagues, will likely become the new political, social, cultural and economic elites of the western world and, thanks to globalization, beyond that. Surely, that is the reason why so many people are willing to pay so much to see their children attend these institutions: to know they will have a clear, strong voice in their future. Surely, that is why many students without the same means dream of the same. But if out of the two categories, those who dream and those whose parents facilitate the admission, one is overwhelmingly more likely to be accepted into the pool of elite universities, then prestige will always look the same to us. It will always look white and upper-middleclass.
I think this is why I am writing this article. I am white and middle class. In my life, I dreamt of applying to prestigious universities and now I am a student of Sciences Po. This may be due to my luck to get a scholarship to go to a great high school that offered me great opportunities (UWC Atlantic College). Still, it is undeniably also because of my privilege and the way the system is broken, at least partially, to get people like me into universities like this. And this is not to say that people like me didn’t earn it, but rather that, in a world full of potential and amazing people, there are often similar people who get the opportunity to show their potential to the fullest. And exceptions may be increasing, but not by enough.
If it is not people from the inside who talk about it and try to create a fairer application process, in university and in many other things in life, than who will?
And I guess it makes sense that some people don’t want to change. I can’t impose my opinion on you, but I hope to have been able to portray the facts as they appear evident to me: elitism exists and favours a minority that is already in power, condemning us to a cycle of elite that will progressively alienate people from different classes, countries and racial backgrounds and perpetuate injustice, discrimination and ultimately, hate.