The college admissions scandal that saw the indictment of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman was shocking in some ways but not at all a surprise in others. It’s been an open secret that the children of the elite and powerful can pull some strings to get there kids into prestigious schools. After all, all four of Al Gore’s kids went to the Ivy Leagues. But it was still a surprise that there would be any arrests in this. Screwing with admissions is something you’d expect the feds to look the other way on.
Nonetheless, there is more to the story that needs to be thought about. This kind of pay-for-play at the admissions level used to happen in the old days. But it wasn’t pretending to be anything else. The Ivy Leagues back in the day were populated by the children of elite families (think Van Rensselaer or Rockefeller) with the occasional genius from the hoi polloi mixed in.
Obviously, there were people who were upset to see stupid rich kids in the ivy leagues at the expense of there own children and neighbors. The call to reform the ivy league can be seen as analogous to other measures in the early 20th century known as the Progressive Era – although I’m not really sure when it was that the Ivy Leagues were democratized (it might have been later).
With that said, it was definitely considered a liberal idea. Using objective tests such as the SAT would make it easier to identify the “diamonds in the rough” of kids in the middle and working classes. Although the SAT had debuted in 1926, my guess is that the democratization of the universities didn’t really start for another 20-25 years. For one thing, this was a time of plenty and lots of money to go around. Second – you had the 1-2 punch of WWII veterans going to college under the GI Bill and the Silent Generation (those too young to fight in the second war) rapidly reaching college age. Therefore, national and state government spending on postsecondary education mushroomed during that time.
This postwar era seems to be the closest we ever got to a real meritocracy. If I remember right – Byron Roth, in a speech at amren, said that by 1975 – everyone who should have been going to college already was.
Now obviously I was talking in the previous two paragraphs talking about colleges in general and not necessarily elite colleges. But I still think the same principle applied to elite colleges that applied to colleges writ large. Steve Farron, in the Affirmative Action Hoax, wrote that the Sputnik event horrified the Americans and that all universities wanted to make sure they had the best minds in the STEM field. He mentioned that for the Freshman Class of 1960 at Columbia, they actually admitted people strictly by the SAT.
Now obviously the civil rights era created affirmative action (although it may have already existed in some instances) and that may have undermined the postwar meritocratic vision. But unlike the 19th and early 20th century – if you had a perfect SAT score in Podunk, USA – you were probably going to get accepted into the Ivies.
So talking now about the present – it feels that even though the Ivy League is still seen as meritocratic (this scandal notwithstanding) – the reputation of the Ivy League is worse than when it was more or less a boarding school for the American elite. This seems like a sort of paradox that I see in many different things. “Capitalist” America actually spends more money than the “Socialist” Scandinavian states. A supreme court where none of its members have held elected office is more partisan than the supreme court of 65 years ago where four of its members (Hugo Black, Harold Burton, Sherman Minton and Earl Warren) held elected office.
So it kind of makes you wonder – can a meritocracy last forever – or will it eventually degrade into something else? Part of it might be that meritocracy, to the extent it existed, came at an inopportune time being only 10-15 years before the civil rights and feminist movements, as well as the rise of what Irving Kristol once called the ”new class” .