COLUMNS

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May 18, 2021

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11:04 a.m.

The Future of Education

“Elite” universities must turn away from exclusionary practices if they hope to stay relevant and truly educate.

It is common to feel some variant of impostor syndrome at UChicago. It might bring you solace to reassure yourself or your friends that you belong here, that you deserve to be here. I understand using the d-word as a coping mechanism, but those who do not question their presence at the University are as deluded as they think they are deserving. Elite universities are luxury brands that thrive on exclusivity while touting lofty ideals of merit. Unless UChicago and other “elite” universities reexamine their commitment to expanding access to education, they will remain nothing more than symbols of affluence poorly veiled under the guise of inclusivity.

I went to a private international high school in the Philippines, sharing classrooms with the children of aristocrats who ran half the country through their business and politics. No one at my school could escape the obsession that came with the U.S. university admissions process; our school prided itself on its university pipeline, going as far as to take an annual photo, published in a national newspaper, of the seniors who were accepted into Ivy League schools. If that’s not enough to leave a bad taste, there were also profiles of these students in luxury magazines. Every year, a few handpicked students were discreetly called into the admin office to receive recommendation letters from the school’s superintendent. They might as well have handed them their acceptance letters right then and there. We had extremely capable teachers who were well-attuned to the college process—some had sign-up sheets for recommendation letters because they were inevitably inundated with requests each year—and several guidance counselors who had an intimate knowledge of the application review process. Our resources were endless, but they also fostered a hypercompetitive environment.

My school’s stated core values were integrity, service, and merit. There was a valedictorian-type who said they would “safety apply” to someone’s “reach” school just to take their spot (integrity). Students jockeyed for leadership positions across community service clubs, sometimes earning up to four or five positions while showing up to one of those five (service). I knew students who went to their teachers and cried and begged for better grades that would eventually be included in their university applications (merit). I’d be happy to take bets on the percentage of students that wrote their own college application essays. And of course, we were competing with the legacy kids, a few of whom did have daddy’s name slapped on some building(s) at a top school. The years when we didn’t get students into at least six of the Ivies were considered drought years. This was a place where top university placements were a matter of certainty, not surprise.

While these data points come from my personal experience, it will come as no surprise that the admissions process favors the wealthy. A 2017 study found that some colleges have more students from the top one percent of the income distribution than from the bottom 60 percent. UChicago was not one of these schools: 10 percent come from the top one percent and 24.5 percent from the bottom 60 percent. While it fares better than most of the Ivies in terms of share of students from lower income groups, and it has also led the way in going test-optional, 58 percent of students still come from the top fifth of the nationwide income distribution. The scale moves even further when we consider that most Americans rank high up on the global income scale, with many people considered poor in the U.S. but middle income globally. It’s no huge leap to assume that most UChicago students are well-off.

Blake Smith, an assistant professor at UChicago, states it perfectly: “Parents, teachers, and classmates pushed them to make the most of their cognitive abilities…and to develop the sort of personality most congenial to teachers and future employers. None of this was their own doing.” If merit means the ability to game the admissions process by crafting a somewhat disingenuous personal narrative about overcoming great odds while claiming full commitment to academics and several extracurriculars, then yes, we are here on merit. If merit means being born in the right country to the right family, being able to afford your New England feeder school, and having a spot at an elite university served to you on a platter, resurrect both Merriam and Webster because they really messed up that one. Sure, you’re a smart kid, and you worked harder than Brad from math class whose family net worth has eight zeros instead of your seven. Even if you aren’t one of the trust fund Brads and Chads: if you are at UChicago, the menu of life options you’ve had at your fingertips is more expansive than most can dream of.

Elite universities have become vessels to transport intergenerational wealth. Advertised as a place for inquiry and boundless learning, which it can be, UChicago is also a means of securing future wealth. I do value everything I have learned during my time here, but I doubt I will be doing Lagrangians in the future (I hope not). As much as UChicago students like to scoff at other, more “pre-professional” schools, we are not very different. As many jokes as we make about the school’s perceived lack of recognition compared to other schools, a degree from this university carries weight with employers, and one of the main draws to this form of education is the connections we make during our time here and the large alumni network into which we are embedded for the rest of our lives. Wealth begets education begets wealth.

I struggle to understand what role universities like ours have to play in improving educational and financial outcomes for those who are not served by their current form. Increasing the proportion of students that come from underrepresented backgrounds is a step in the right direction, but is that enough? Some have suggested randomizing admission to college through a lottery after screening students based on some metrics in order to reduce bias. This idea is valuable, but it poses its own issues in terms of selecting the metrics and the accompanying biases that would inevitably play into the final decisions.

Another solution would be expanding access to a UChicago education. With applications far exceeding acceptances, there is certainly pent-up demand for higher education. With a multibillion-dollar endowment, the University could build more campuses in other cities or countries. It’s unlikely that the University has any incentive to do so, since building more campuses may harm the perceived exclusivity of the school and hamper its position in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which we know is anathema to Bob Zimmer & Co. It is also a large financial and logistical commitment, but one that should not be ruled out for the future. An easier mode of expansion would be to offer dual or online degrees. Having attended online school for more than a year now, we know that although it is not a one-to-one replacement for in-person studies, is more than possible. The University could offer courses, sequences, or entire degrees at a reduced cost to students who prefer to study off-campus.

The future of education does not rely entirely on the transformation and centrality of elite universities. It may be more effective to push for greater funding for public universities and community colleges. We need to address the student debt crisis and ease the burden on students while also exploring alternatives to a traditional university education that still improve financial outcomes. With the extensive availability of online educational resources, many of which are low-cost or even free, the university system, soaked in its credentialism, may eventually lose its place to a path that is cheaper and less fundamentally broken. What remains to be seen is how far universities like UChicago are willing to go to truly expand and improve access to education and whether they can ever be more than products of conspicuous consumption, the Guccis and Diors of education and nothing more.

Soham Mall is a fourth-year in the College.