The Future of Elite Schools in the Trump Era (and the Future of Blogging)

A student and parent pass Widener Library's banners before Harvard University's Class Day Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 27, 2015. Dominick Reuter / Reuters

A few days ago, for no intended reason, I came across this remarkable off-the-cuff essay from back in 2011 by my then-and-now colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. In those days—before “The Case for Reparations,” before Between the World and Me, before the new, wonderful Apollo Theater rendition of Between—Ta-Nehisi was a closely followed writer but not yet the internationally influential figure he has deservedly become. And, like many of us writing online for The Atlantic in those days (I was doing so from Beijing), he used the then-flourishing model of the blog to carry out an extended thinking-out-loud relationship with his readers. That’s what you’ll see in the post mentioned above, which is about Ta-Nehisi’s encounter with some works of Herman Melville’s.

The world has moved on from that era of online discourse, principally because of a shift in the dynamics of readership and traffic. Then, you could assume that readers of today’s post would have some background awareness of what you wrote yesterday, or maybe last month as well. They’d know the kind of sensibility a comment came from, and of the parts of the argument you weren’t spelling out.

Now, any given post bears a greater expectation of being a stand-alone, completed thought—one that can “travel” via social-media sharing (through Facebook or Twitter) and will be comprehensible to people who have no idea of the preceding flow. With no assumption that posts will be read in context, there’s a correspondingly greater risk that any comment or sentence can be taken on its own, taken the wrong way, and instantly circulated to damaging effect. There’s less leeway for the “error” part of the trial-and-error aspect of thinking in public. The writing naturally becomes more formal and less playful.

To exist in journalism is to be comfortable with accelerating change—back in 2011, I quaintly resisted the term “blog” for my part of the site, little imagining that a few years later that word would have the lost-era resonance of “first quarto edition” or “hand-written letter.” And this shift in discourse, by which something is lost, is also part of a process by which a lot is gained: namely, a much broader potential audience for material on a site like ours. But it is a shift.

This is a build-up for saying that I’m going to try once more, within the confines of this space, to revive a little of the retro blogging spirit. As an example for today, here is a message that came in from a reader in an elite-university college town. (OK: It’s New Haven.) He says that an under-appreciated aspect of Donald Trump’s war on expertise deserves further attention. The reader writes:

I believe that you, like me, are the product of some of the most elite schools in the US.* I've been involved in the Ivy League, indirectly or directly, almost every year since [the 1980s] when we all drove my oldest brother to Harvard.  It's striking to see how Trump has turned his anti-elitist fire onto Harvard and its peers.  First their endowments were targeted in the tax reform.  And now we are learning that the Justice Department is going after their admissions practices.

In the past, the courts have eventually sided with the schools, giving them the ability to use what they call "holistic" criteria to create the classes that they want.  When you have a chance to talk to faculty members who sit in on final admissions decisions, you realize that this means that they usually use test scores and grades, but can also ignore those supposedly objective data points to let in students whose test scores and grades might not be as high, but are students that they'd like to have on campus.    

From where I sit, the schools are woefully under-prepared for the Trump onslaught and I predict that they will get slammed and have to change their policies.  To imagine what future Harvard classes will look like if the schools lose the court cases, look to what happened to Berkeley when they were constrained by Proposition 209 from considering using affirmative action policies-- the percentage of Asian American and White students increased, while Black and Latino representation decreased.

When I think about the rise of Trump, I believe that part of the blame should rest at the feet of Harvard, Yale and their peers.

Clinton, Bush, and Obama stacked their administration with graduates from these schools and the global economic system that they created (and profited from) had important flaws that hurt certain sectors of the US and provided fertile ground for Trump's dark vision of a sort of economic conspiracy holding back real Americans.  As a group, they often were arrogant and felt that they knew best.  Yet they also weren't smart enough to understand how the economic world that they created actually had some fundamental flaws that would come to threaten the elite global world view that they thought was inevitable.

Every one of these schools (which serve a smaller and smaller percentage of the US population as population grows and they admit more and more foreign students) has spent enormous resources setting up foreign campuses and study abroad opportunities for their students.  The per pupil costs of elite schools is many times more than what state schools can afford.  They are sticking to their mantra of cranking out global elites.

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New Haven is a small town, and I regularly interact with top Yale administrators and faculty.  To a person, they are worried, but assume that the fundamental model that they've relied on will continue.  To me, this is wishful, arrogant, thinking.

Schools like Harvard are juicy targets.  If I were on the Yale Corporation, I'd suggest they target key red states and set up exchange programs where top students from, say, Arizona State, can come to Yale for a semester/year and Yale students would go there.  Or maybe set up satellite campuses in places like Appalachian coal country where students could deepen their understanding of their own country and maybe also influence populations who are as far removed from Harvard as they are from the moon?  Maybe that's not as exciting as visiting Yale Singapore.  But wouldn't that be better for everyone?

Every year we meet a new batch of Yalies.  As they internalize the elitism that wafts through the air at elite colleges and universities, I worry about them.  When you hear how great you are over and over again, you tend to come to believe it.  They and their parents all assume that a Yale degree is a golden ticket and their lives will be wildly successful-- they'll change the world for the better and make loads doing it.

I recently had a conversation with some incoming Yale students and told them about [a relative] who is a a lawyer at a white shoe law firm in CA.  He's hired many people over the years.  And his policy is simply to not look at anyone who went to Harvard or schools like it.  In his experience, it's better to hire smart people who have had to navigate the big, excellent state schools like Berkeley.  The future Yalies were outraged.  I pointed out that they were now part of a privileged club where many more employers would look hard at them simply because of the school that they went to.  

People in the Ivy bubble tend not to question the world of intellectual privilege that we live in.  We are the best and totally deserve to run the world.  We ignore the unfair reality of the insanely competitive admissions world that rejects most fully qualified applicants so that the schools can create the classes that they desire-- with good students to be sure, but also top athletic teams, geographical diversity, racial diversity, etc.  We forget that the schools are not impartial, fair judges, but regularly change admissions criteria based on their own desires, which are molded by various interest groups such as alumni, professors, and political and social forces.

I'm afraid that in the new Trump world, we're going to find out that our assumptions about the unassailable position of our top schools could be completely wrong.

I share the reader’s admiration for Arizona State, which is a remarkably ambitious, inventive, inclusive institution—and one that is consciously trying to re-invent the model of American higher education for the economic and demographic realities of a changed era. And I offer this message in the old, “Hmm, this made me think” blog model. I hope other readers will find it interesting too.

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* For the record, during K-12 I was a public-school kid, from first grade onward in small-town inland California. I proudly graduated from Redlands High School in the town of Redlands. Then, as the reader supposes, I went on to college and graduate school at elite private institutions, Harvard and Oxford, respectively. [Oxford is actually a state-run institution.] I share many of the reader’s concerns about what’s ahead for these institutions.