The fallacy of meritocracy

Why the American dream is an illusion

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Cade Belisle / Daily Collegian

By Anay Contractor, Collegian Contributor

The United States prides itself on nurturing a meritocratic society where hard work and opportunism can make something out of nothing. There’s this idea of an American dream that has captured the imagination of millions of immigrants and made the U.S. a melting pot for innovation, enterprise and freedom. For the most part, this is true. The U.S. is indeed a hub for all these things, but it doesn’t quite capture the entire picture. The white picket fence is not the same ideal of yesteryear; it has changed into something else entirely.

Fundamentally, a meritocracy is a society where power is granted to people solely based on ability and skill. Isn’t that good? In theory, yes, but what are the methods with which one can acquire ability and skill? Nowadays, a college degree is the primary inertial force of economic mobility, yet the cost, time and difficulty of obtaining one increase by the year. Acceptance rates are reducing, prices are increasing and the desire for advanced degrees is swelling. But is there any real substance to this?

No, there really isn’t. The quality of education has reduced significantly from K-12 to the PhD level. Public schools, where the vast majority of America is educated both at the grassroots and collegiate level, are underfunded, with most teachers struggling to make ends meet. Most of what is taught at colleges and universities can easily be learned through YouTube, books and free online courses. One can become a programmer or financial analyst by doing cheap certifications and building portfolios. But even then, this incessant demand for a college degree still remains in the workforce, even though college is really just an expensive ticket to the upper echelons of the labor market. A few decades ago, anyone could obtain a cushy job on Wall Street; many famous bankers and investors started as janitors or assistants and were able to work their way up through true, actual merit – not the falsely fabricated stuff they disseminate nowadays.

Let’s take a look at the modern, white-collar labor market in greater depth. It’s common knowledge by now that some of the most coveted jobs lie in finance, technology, academia, consulting, etc. But what does it take to get a foot in the door at these major companies and firms? An expensive degree or two – more specifically, an expensive degree or two from top institutions that cost a significant amount of money.

Who gets into these top institutions? Even though Harvard University, for example, has increased their financial aid packages and granted admission to more low-income students, an overwhelming 36 percent of their admitted students have a legacy there. Most of these top companies allocate their recruitment resources to highly-ranked colleges and universities, especially in finance where schools like UPenn’s Wharton and Harvard Business School feature regularly on the resumes of investment bankers, consultants and traders at prestigious firms like JP Morgan and McKinsey.

Now more than ever, this idea of the American dream is predicated on inherent resources rather than actual merit. Again, this is not to say that you can’t succeed in the U.S. – it is still, for some, a land of opportunity and reward – but it is increasingly skewed towards a modern, highly elite and competitive upper-middle class. For the umpteenth time, these problems originate at the grassroots level, our K-12 public education system – unfortunately, all public schools aren’t created equal. As the real estate value of one’s community is a significant determinant of the quality of their public school system, where you live matters – a lot.

Only when we strive to create equity of opportunity can we wax lyrical about this ‘meritocratic’ America. Right now, it is very hard to enter the ivory tower. Even from the day you are born, there may or may not be factors stacked in your favor. This needs to change. Our generation needs to dismantle these false promises, reveal the truth and promote widespread change.

Anay Contractor can be reached at [email protected]