When I applied to business school, I came across this question in the application: “Are your parents graduates of the Harvard Business School?”
I proudly checked “no.” Naively, I thought it counted against you if you answered “yes.” After all, why would the nation’s best universities want to serve as finishing schools for the elite rather than launching pads for the determined?
Children whose parents are in the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.
And why would the children of alumni require any boost in the first place? Why would they need anyone to cup their hands together as a step stool to launch them over the class barricade and into the Ivy League if they were born into it?
On the undergraduate side, around 15 percent of Harvard’s Class of 2022 are so-called legacy students, according to The Harvard Crimson. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018 that selective universities often accept legacies at double the rate of the overall applicant pool, while at Princeton University they’re admitted roughly four times more often.
What I saw up close once I enrolled at Harvard Business School — my first private school experience since local Montessori preschool — was that those students given a lift by their legacy status didn’t have more intelligence or ingenuity or resilience than those like me who came from homes without any college degrees. They simply had more access.
The irony is that one great benefit of an Ivy League education is, also, access. Admission to Harvard Business School — or any of its peers — is the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. Those who work hard and emerge from the gates of elite colleges and graduate schools go on to elite companies and elite government positions — a reality illuminated once again by data recently obtained from the State Department.
We all are worse off if these gates open only a crack to people who don’t already come from the economic and social high ground. Those who care about building structures and institutions of power that reflect and respond to all of America — not only gated-community America — could start by giving less of a leg up to those already enjoying the benefits of access.
Many of the Ivy Leaguers around me intuitively knew what I initially didn’t, coming from a land of union-belonging single moms working two jobs: that graduating from an Ivy League institution communicated to others what those with less privilege don’t always know how to translate. It said that you were smart enough to get into the elite institution, that you belonged to high-status networks from which talent was selected for prime posts and that you thus merited their assistance in finding opportunities.
So it is in the State Department, as Nahal Toosi’s reporting in Politico shows. “Foreign Service employees with degrees from Ivy League schools have significantly better odds of earning a promotion early in their careers than colleagues who lack such credentials,” Toosi writes. “At one point in the department’s career hierarchy, their odds are more than 20 percent higher.”
The media are similar to the State Department in embracing Ivy League grads. As FiveThirtyEight put it, “There’s no definitive data on where reporters went to school, but the newsrooms of influential media outlets in New York and Washington, D.C., are full of graduates from Ivy League or similarly selective colleges.” The writer, Ben Casselman, had enough self-awareness to note that his outlet was “just as bad” as everywhere else: “The vast majority of our editorial staff, including me, went to elite, selective colleges. (I went to Columbia.)”
And then there is corporate America. In its top ranks, Ivy League representation remains well above its proportion of the population. Richard Zweigenhaft of Guilford College found that in 2011, although far less than 1 percent of Americans had ever earned undergraduate or postgraduate degrees from Harvard, 14.1 percent of those who sat on Fortune 500 boards of directors had.
It’s no surprise that the Ivy League finds itself heavily populated by America’s 1 percent. This is changing, as Yale University pointed out in February, but only slowly. According to a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, children whose parents are in the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.
This reality leads us to a closed system in which the few have the most. And this deprives the places that matter, that shape the country, its economy and its stories, of depth of experience. It shortchanges the nation of leaders who have seen want and known adversity and understand what it’s like to fight and fight and fight for a shot. It seeds unfairness and entrenches a status quo, and it leaves us all poorer.
Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with wealth. Quite the contrary. A shot at wealth is what every single mom working two jobs wants for her children. What is wrong is a playing field that is tilted away from those trying to teach their children that merit matters most and that access to opportunity is shared equally and depends entirely on hard work.
It shortchanges the nation of leaders who have seen want and known adversity and understand what it’s like to fight and fight and fight for a shot.
Where I grew up, on the wrong side of the Washington, D.C., suburban class divide, earning your spot mattered — it is what our mothers burned into us. Get up, go to work, do your best, do it again the next day. “Life is hard,” my mother told me if I complained about getting up at 6:30 a.m. and being the first one dropped off at day care so she could get to work at the telephone company on time. In the evening, she sold Tupperware. “On a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three.”
It matters that institutions that share America’s story represent and reflect America’s citizenry. And not just in the State Department, but across the government, the private sector and the media. We are stronger as a country when we draw upon those from all different experiences to drive us to the best outcome and the most creative solutions.
Access to opportunity matters. And it is in our shared interest to spread — not hoard — it. “Legacy” is not a synonym for “merit.” And no one who comes from a family steeped in the Ivy League needs a helping hand when they were already born with a winning one.