Reading about the extraordinary college admissions scandal in the U.S. this past week, one couldn’t help but be astounded by:
- The amount of money even the richest of the rich think is worth spending to get their kids into School A instead of School B, not to mention being willing to risk jail time for this illegal activity (whoops, they probably didn’t think that was going to happen!).
- The fact that it costs such staggering sums of money to attend these Ivy League and other prestigious schools, compared with receiving a perfectly fine post-secondary education at a more reasonably-priced institution.
- The reminder that such a remarkably elitist system exists in the country to that has branded itself from early days as a meritocracy, where everyone had a chance at the American Dream. Get a good solid public school education, available to everyone, work hard, be conscientious, and the Dream is yours. It would appear that the playing field for the best and brightest is not that level after all.
- These parents clearly knew that they were passing on to their high school children the lesson that money and who you know will get you far; hard work, talent, intelligence, and compassion are for shmucks. It is difficult to know how a meritocracy survives much less thrives with that kind of message.
I grew up as what I thought was a product of the American Dream. As I understood it, quality public education for every citizen was the bedrock, the foundation of all foundations for the American Dream. But judging by the state-wide teachers’ strikes rotating around the country these days, that foundation has weakened. And judging by the fact that in many states public schools are funded by property taxes that vary significantly from district to district, the equal opportunity part of the equation for the American Dream seems to be falling short. This is sad and unnecessary in the world’s richest country.
Doing well in school and then being able to attend some kind of accessible post-secondary education is the second part of the equation for fulfilling the American Dream. And this is where the elitist part comes in. Perhaps most Americans aren’t aware of the fact that in most other western countries, the cost to attend university doesn’t vary much from institution to institution. Yes, some are harder to get into, but there are opportunities for all and the quality of learning from one to the next is very similar. And enriching campus experiences abound everywhere. In Canada, tuition at any university will be in the range of $6,500-$10,000 (Canadian dollars!), with a few engineering programs being a bit more and law being more. It doesn’t matter if you go to McGill, the University of New Brunswick, the University of British Columbia, or Acadia, your costs will be comparable. And this is true in most places. The public-private school divide and the extreme costs that accompany this dual system simply don’t exist to the same extent elsewhere.
And, while Americans often gasp at the tax rates of the other western countries – the taxes that have universal health care, generous parental leaves, etc. – and the citizens of the other western countries complain about their higher taxes, these citizens in the other countries have no idea that property taxes in the States are in most cases orders of magnitude higher than elsewhere, because they are really school taxes on top of other municipal requirements. It kind of all comes out in the wash.
The American Dream speaks to upward mobility and the idea that every citizen has the opportunity, through and education and hard work, to do better than his or her parents did, and that everyone can own their own home. And, as with modern democracy, which started with the Founding Fathers, that notion of the American Dream has spread far beyond its borders. That has been a very good thing. What’s not to admire in that dream? Sadly for Americans, it seems that momentum for the American Dream has been lost in the past few decades. I can’t help but wonder if some of the inequities that have crept into the education systems have played a part.
According to a number of studies of the OECD countries, “by international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility; our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. … only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility.“ Economist Joseph Stiglitz has suggested, “Maybe we should be calling the American Dream the Scandinavian Dream.” (Wikipedia, American Dream)
The desire for upward mobility and opportunity for all, based on merit, is something embraced worldwide, and in many, many parts of the world the U.S. remains the #1 go-to place for people who want their families to be able to get ahead. It is indeed regrettable that the college admissions scandal has shone a spotlight on some ugly chinks in the story. But on the other hand, this sad situation presents an opportunity to turn things around and ensure that the most deserving students are the ones who are admitted to the most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Surely that can only be good for these institutions, the best students, and for the country.