How College Became a Ruthless Competition Divorced From Learning

It is a truth universally acknowledged that elite parents, in possession of excellent jobs, want to get their kids into college.

A wedding-cake topper covered with a graduation cap
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Getty

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In early-19th-century society—an aristocratic world of inherited wealth—marriage occupied center stage. A good spouse was an all-purpose resource: essential for moving up in the world, as for Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, or for sustaining a dynasty, as for the object of her affections, Mr. Darcy.

School and work were not a path to wealth and status—certainly not for women, nor even for men. Elites were indifferent to education and disdained work. The landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice look down on Elizabeth’s working uncle, no matter that he gets his income from “a very respectable line of trade.” The economic facts on the ground supported their antipathy. The highest-paying jobs tended to be in government. But even at the end of the century, an elite English civil servant made just 17.8 times the median wage, and his American counterpart just 7.8 times. Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year from inherited capital was more than 300 times the median wage.

Courtship and marriage were as ruthless as schooling was casual. Because elites married instrumentally—to shore up lineages—everyone wanted to marry the same people for the same reasons; even those who saw through the regime could not completely escape it. When Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s estate for the first time, her usual wryness deserts her and she can’t help feeling that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” All the same, marriage was then, as it is now, also a close human relationship valuable for its own sake. Instrumental advantages were not enough for a good and happy marriage—that required compatibility and love. Marrying well demanded skill, judgment, and luck. The challenge of marrying to secure wealth, status, and love was so great that it could sustain the forward progress of a novel, as it does in Pride and Prejudice. The basic pattern was repeated in so many stories that critics have given it a name: the marriage plot.

The path to the top looks very different today, almost a mirror image in which work and school have traded places with inheritance and marriage. The rich no longer disdain but embrace work. Busyness has become a badge of honor as elites boast of their workloads: A 2015 advertisement for The Wall Street Journal stated, “People who don’t have time make time to read The Wall Street Journal.” Meanwhile degrees, preferably from top universities, are the new inheritances, and even marriage now depends on school. The share of marriages in which both partners possess college degrees grew by 800 percent from 1960 to 2010.

Today, schooling is how elites secure income and pass their privilege down to their children. The U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings are our Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that elite parents, in possession of excellent jobs, want to get their kids into college.

The dangers associated with status seeking that Austen documented have also shifted settings. Nowadays people marry for love, and schooling is ensnared by competitive forces much like those that threatened to pervert the course of love for Elizabeth Bennet. Education itself has been distorted in the process, as the marriage plot has given way to the college plot.

By the 2010s, seven in 10 of the Forbes 400 richest Americans were mostly “self-made,” and purely self-made fortunes had come to outnumber purely inherited ones. CEOs now make 320 times a typical production worker’s wage, an even greater ratio than that produced by Mr. Darcy’s fortune. Elite work dominates top incomes more broadly: Finance-sector professionals, vice presidents and above at S&P 1500 firms, elite management consultants, partners at highly profitable law firms, and specialist medical doctors collectively constitute half of the richest 1 percent of American households. By my estimates, both the richest 1 percent and even the richest 0.1 percent of households now receive between three-quarters and two-thirds of their income not from land, machines, or other capital but in exchange for selling their labor (up from one-third and one-sixth in 1960). Even narrower estimates set the labor share of top 1 percent incomes at greater than half.

The path to these top incomes runs through an elite education. Many of the jobs on the one-percenter list impose formal degree requirements, and most require college or professional degrees in practice. This makes education enormously profitable. Only about one in 75 Americans without a high-school degree, one in 40 with a high-school degree only, and one in six with a bachelor’s degree only will enjoy lifetime earnings equal to those of the median professional-school graduate. The purely economic rates of return on investments in education have been estimated at 13 to 14 percent for college and as high as 30 percent for law school, which more than doubles the rate of return provided by the stock market.

Because education, like aristocratic rank, is a positional good, the most elite educations yield the greatest returns: “The value to me of my education,” a well-known economist once observed, “depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.” In law, graduates of top-10 schools make on average half more than graduates of schools ranked 21 to 100; at the most profitable law firm in America, where partners make more than $6 million a year, more than 90 percent of the partners graduated from a top-10 law school. Top investment banks recruit from only a handful of colleges—sometimes just Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and perhaps MIT and Williams College. A survey of a narrowly targeted set of top jobs reports, almost unbelievably, that “nearly 50 percent of America’s corporate leaders, 60 percent of its financial leaders, and 50 percent of its highest government officials attended only 12 universities.”

Education today is like marriage once was in another way also: Students and schools confront an intense two-way matching system—a modern version of the marriage market that Austen described. Today, bringing the college plot to a successful conclusion requires resources, energy, skill, and luck.

On the one hand, high-achieving students almost all want to go to the same schools. In law, for example, of the roughly 2,000 people admitted to the top-five law schools each year, no more than a smattering choose to enroll in a law school ranked outside the top 10. Getting into the top schools is incredibly difficult. In the current cycle, Harvard College admitted just 3.4 percent of its applicants, Columbia 3.7 percent, and MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale all admitted less than 5 percent. Odds like these are nothing new in the applicants’ lives, though. The elite high schools that enormously improve the odds of getting into college—places like the Dalton and Spence schools in Manhattan or Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles—are themselves oversubscribed. Spence admits only about 10 percent of applicants. That makes it important to attend highly selective elementary and even preschools, which again may admit fewer than one in 10 applicants. Right from birth, a family bent on the Ivy League will find itself wrapped up in the competition created by education’s instrumental value.

On the other hand, colleges all want the same high-achieving applicants. The five top-ranked law schools, for example, together teach only a little more than 4 percent of law students but capture roughly two-thirds of applicants with LSAT scores in the 99th percentile.  And just the top 20 colleges in the U.S. News rankings, which account for less than 1 percent of all college students, suck up fully a quarter of applicants whose SAT verbal scores exceed 700. The competition among colleges for students is not much less intense than the competition among students for colleges.

Educational hierarchies invite ruthless competition: Only one of us can get ahead, just as only one woman could land Mr. Darcy. So we scratch and claw to get places in the exclusive schools and colleges whose graduates fill the top jobs.

The most obvious pitfall of this competition is that only the privileged can reliably access the lifetime of schooling needed to win: Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale together typically enroll more students from households in the richest 1 percent than from the entire bottom half. But even for rich applicants, a 5 percent admissions rate makes the odds of winning the college lottery much longer than Elizabeth Bennet’s odds of marrying well. The pressure to beat these odds drives even the most well-resourced applicants and their families to immoral and self-destructive schemes. In the recent Varsity Blues scandal, sophisticated and otherwise sensible people with family wealth to spare paid bribes to arrange fraudulent athletic resumes and rigged test scores for their children. Setting moral principle aside, what besides an overwhelming fear of losing caste could lead parents to think that their children’s development is best served by giving them, behind their backs, false credentials? Is this any less foolish than Mrs. Bennet’s sending a daughter off to visit a possible suitor through a rain that makes her dangerously ill, in the hope that the bad weather will force him to take her in and fall in love?

At the same time, the pressure to get the best students leads schools astray. The glossy marketing materials that colleges use to attract students are sometimes ridiculous. (Yale’s current campaign somewhat obscurely invites applicants to “Embrace the spirit of And.”) More seriously, the need to lure the most-desired privileged students away from competitors leads colleges to replace need-based financial aid with “merit scholarships.”

The dominant role that rankings play in students’ decisions about where to enroll makes all but the most elite colleges perpetually insecure. Rankings, one dean has said, “are always in the back of [every administrator’s] head. With every issue that comes up, we have to ask, ‘How is this impacting our ranking?’” Schools hire rankings consultants to tell them how to improve. The responses don’t serve educational excellence, or really any educational purpose at all, and educators resent them. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, once quipped that “the next thing they’ll do is rank churches. You know, ‘Where does God appear most frequently? How big are the pews?” But colleges still hire consultants and follow their advice. The imperatives created by education’s instrumental value are too powerful to resist.

Another pitfall of competitive education is that it distorts students’ choices of what skills to acquire. When schooling is the path to income and status, students study the subjects that yield the highest wages and the greatest prestige, inducing too many people to study finance and law and too few to study education, caregiving, or even engineering. But private wages are not the same thing as the public interest. Child-care workers, for example, give much more to society than they take from it, generating almost 10 times as great a social product as they capture in private wages. Bankers and lawyers, by contrast, capture private wages that exceed their social product—they take more than they give. The distortions reach beyond specific jobs. Art, culture, and community all make the world a much better place, but they are notoriously difficult to monetize in the market. Competitive schooling therefore drives students away from these fields. No surprise, then, that the rise of competitive education has been accompanied by a steep decline in student interest in the humanities.

The turn away from the humanities is a sign of competitive schooling’s most far-reaching effect: It perverts our culture’s understanding of what education is, and makes us forget that schooling has value beyond status seeking.

Education, John Dewey said, is “the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men.” Educated people know themselves and the world, and they have skills and inclinations to make the world a better place. Getting an excellent education takes effort and resources—including the ability to take time away from working to make ends meet—so wealth makes education easier to acquire. But education in Dewey’s sense remains essentially democratic rather than hierarchical, and certainly isn’t competitive.  Ideas and the library books that contain them are free; you and I and everyone else can in principle all come, through study and conversation, to know ourselves and the world and to learn the skills that can help improve it.

The college plot, in which education serves as an all-purpose tool for acquiring income and status, works differently. Even though nobody elected the College Board or U.S. News, they have become our society’s de facto social planners, deciding who gets ahead. To rationalize and justify their enormous power, the planners wrap their assessments of educational quality in technocratic precision—in statistically validated standardized test scores and GPAs and carefully calibrated rankings formulas. The “science” behind testing and ranking legitimates the hierarchies that the planners construct. Students and schools then orient themselves around scores and rankings, performing their eliteness much as Austen’s gentry sustained its privilege through elaborate manners.

Skeptics challenge test scores and rankings on their own terms. Most commonly, critics say that the SAT is culturally or racially biased and fails to predict college grades or future career success. The deeper issue is not that scores and rankings are bad at calibrating what they try to measure. Test scores and rankings are bad at capturing education: They don’t even pretend to capture a student’s overall progress toward an emotionally and intellectually mature set of attitudes about herself and her world.

Improving tests and rankings won’t solve the problem, because the competitive hierarchy that tests and rankings serve is the problem. Education’s intrinsic value has as many dimensions as varieties of human experience. In fact, striking a sure-footed and confident balance among incommensurable values without disguising the difficulties involved is part of what it means to be educated. No single number could possibly measure or rank education understood in this way. GPAs and SATs—averages constructed without any theory of how or why it’s possible to add the things they average—don’t even try. It is simply ridiculous to treat someone who is intuitive, insightful, and good at describing what she sees but not good at explaining a complex chain of logical arguments as having an “average” linguistic education. And it is even more absurd to call someone who can read and write powerfully but struggles with equations and data an “average” student. Yet GPAs and SATs dominate admissions decisions all the same—how else could Harvard’s average SAT score hover around the 99th percentile?

College rankings are, if anything, even more ridiculous. U.S. News combines a grab bag of factors—graduation and retention rates, an odd measure of “social mobility,” class size, faculty salaries and educations, student-faculty ratios, the share of faculty that are full-time, expert reputation, academic spending per student, student test scores and high-school class rank, and alumni giving—weighted to within one-tenth of 1 percent to produce a single comprehensive measure of college quality. Changes in the weightings so tiny that they are obviously arbitrary make material differences in the rankings. In this year’s law-school report, U.S. News issued multiple corrections—for example, eliminating a 0.25 percent weight for the “credit-bearing hours of instruction provided by law librarians to full-time equivalent law students” (whatever that is) and increasing the weighting of the bar-passage rate by 0.25 percent. These maneuvers altered the rank of 35 law schools, including nine in the top 30.

How could these measurements, or any measurements at all, rank schools whose missions embrace disparate visions of education along a single dimension? Seattle University, for example, promotes social justice in the Jesuit tradition and emphasizes deep connections to its region. By contrast, Harvard University aspires to educate the global elite and to collect the world’s best research faculty in every academic subject. U.S. News boasts that “our methodology is the product of years of research.” But the basic question of what this research is studying—of the educational values that the rankings are supposed to measure—remains unaddressed. What account of educational excellences could yield the result that U.S. News reports—that Seattle ranks 124th and Harvard ranks second among U.S. universities?

This is madness. Education’s core purpose is (or once was) to help people engage with the world and grow into themselves—to discover the overlap between their interests and their talents and develop it. Different people and schools each embrace distinctive visions of empathy, understanding, wisdom, and usefulness: The scholar aspires to know the forces that drive history forward, the inventor seeks to bend technology to practical ends, and the activist strives to reform institutions and inspire citizens to embrace justice. Schools with different educational missions ought to favor different students, and students with different aspirations ought to favor different schools. But when education’s instrumental value comes to dominate life chances overall, rivalry over education becomes intensely focused. The madness is the point. GPAs, SATs, and rankings step in to suppress ambiguities that they can’t eliminate and create a technocratic facade that can justify hard choices as well as hierarchy. Even if we disagree about how well or even what the SAT measures, we can all agree on who got the highest score. Even though the scholar, the inventor, and the activist disagree about what makes life worth living, they all want to get into Harvard.

A social and economic order based on the immense labor incomes of extravagantly educated workers traps high-achieving students in a pitiless competition to attain meaningless superiority. The more completely people embrace education’s competitive face, the further they retreat from its deeper place in human self-actualization; no matter how skilled they get at capturing status, they never acquire a deep self-knowledge. And in this sense they remain forever uneducated. Simultaneously, the schools that focus their training on the quest for competitive advantage betray every plausible ideal of academic excellence. Instead of understanding students as people to be cultivated, competitive schooling treats them as assets to be managed and exploited. These perversions are today’s analogs to the boredom, loneliness, and disenchantment that Elizabeth Bennet feared would accompany an instrumental marriage.

We have now traveled far enough down the path of competitive education that our age has spawned a literature of disenchantment over schooling, especially in narrative journalism. Some treatments emphasize the soullessness of students who know education only as a means to status. Others worry that instrumentalism kills once-vibrant intellectual traditions, particularly in the humanities. Still others skewer elite schools for claiming to pursue justice when their bottom lines require them to help their (overwhelmingly rich) students get ahead. As Caitlin Flanagan caustically observed in The Atlantic, “If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.”

The most practical thread in this literature proposes reforms. Really untangling the college plot—for students and for schools—will require reaching beyond education to reduce social and economic inequalities writ large. Although reforms can’t end with schools, they might start there. The top schools can’t just admit a few more underprivileged students, as if a small number of exceptions might launder a dirty rule. Instead, they can vindicate their core educational values only by becoming, simply, less elite. I have proposed that exclusive schools—from preschool through graduate school—should double or even triple their enrollments, and diversify them, on pain of losing their tax exemptions. This would immediately dampen admissions and rankings competition and soon, by increasing the supply of graduates, reduce the competitive value of “elite” degrees. Others have suggested that once candidates’ credentials cross a relatively modest threshold, keyed to the capacity to do the academic work, schools should admit them by lottery. These ideas have in common the desire to save education’s true value from its competitive role.

If wealth and status didn’t turn on where people went to school, students could pursue their own interests for their own reasons. Schools and colleges, freed from the burden of deciding who gets ahead, could renounce competition over rankings and recover their diverse visions of educational excellence: scholarly progress, practical wisdom, social justice, and a thousand other values. A long but now-faded American tradition links education to rejecting hierarchy and embracing democratic equality. “Democracy,” Dewey wrote, “is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained,” and “since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education.”  Education that is embedded in a competitive quest for superiority betrays this faith and strives “to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experiences.” By freeing themselves from hierarchy, both students and schools might redeem education’s promise to help people know and become more truly themselves.

Until then, the growing literature of the college plot will continue to reveal how hierarchy leads education astray. No entry in this catalog has yet skewered competitive education with the moral clarity or emotional precision that Austen deployed against instrumental marriage. But Austen wrote just as the way of life that she criticized was ending. When the literature of the college plot matures, we’ll know that our era, too, is coming to a close.