Unraveling America?

One of the arguments for education at an elite college is the “networking”—the connections students make at those schools. Writing recently in the New Yorker, Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann made that argument, saying that Ivy League tuitions are “undervalued” because admission to a Harvard or a Yale provides a student with a gilded key to ascend to the top of the social ladder.

Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, would disagree with Lemann on most public policy issues. But both would firmly agree that a degree from a prestigious school greatly boosts the odds of ascent into the highest levels of American life. The theme of Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, is that our country is in trouble because the few graduates of elite colleges get the glittering prizes of life and everyone else fights over what is left.

Murray believes that America is splitting into a world where the cognitive elite—top lawyers, government officials in the Senior Executive Service or higher, editors of leading newspapers and magazines, and most movie and television producers and directors—live in enclaves where they only consort with people very much like themselves. Part of the book is an exploration of differences between highbrows and lowbrows, in the tradition of Class, by the late Paul Fussell, which suggested that there are nine levels of class in the United States, or the works of Russell Lynes, who, in 1949, introduced the concepts of “highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow.” The book even has a pop quiz where Murray asks his readers to take to see which class they are.  (If you know that Jimmie Johnson is a NASCAR champion or if you enjoy fishing, you’re definitely not upper class, even if some fly-fishermen with six-figure incomes would disagree.) 

The elite colleges pride themselves on their “diversity,” but Murray argues that they really aren’t very diverse at all. Their students are, far more often than not, children of rich white parents, rich Asian parents, or rich African-American parents.

Earning a degree from one of the elite schools enables you to live in what Murray calls “the SuperZips”—areas where people have stratospheric incomes, such as Bethesda, Maryland, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or Palo Alto, California.

Few of the people who live in these upper-crust enclaves are not Ivy Leaguers or graduates of other elite colleges and universities.

As Murray sees it, the “elite colleges” of America are divided into several tiers. At the top tier, he argues, are Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, followed by Stanford, Duke, MIT, “the rest of the Ivy League, and some of what used to be known as the Seven Sisters.” If you throw in the rest of the top 25 universities and liberal arts schools as rated by U.S. News and World Report and Barron’s, you’ll have a fairly complete list of the elite schools.

The reason these universities are in the top tier, says Murray, is not that they offer superior education, but because they practice “cognitive stratification.” He explains that until around 1960, Ivy League students weren’t that much smarter than anyone else.  A 1926 study of students at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale found that these students’ IQs averaged 117, while the average college student of that era had an IQ of 115. The average SAT verbal score of a Harvard freshman in 1952 was a relatively meager 583.

Murray deduces from these facts that America’s academic talent—its brainpower—was far more widely dispersed among colleges and universities than it is now. But in the 1950s the Ivies and other top schools changed their standards. By 1960, the Harvard freshman’s average SAT verbal score had risen to 678, meaning that, Murray writes, “the average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the incoming class in 1960.” Other top schools tightened their admission standards at the same time. Murray compares the Yale classes of 1961 and 1966. In 1961, 25 percent of Yale freshmen had SAT verbal scores below 600. By 1966, only nine percent of Yale freshmen had below-600 SAT verbal scores.

As evidence of that trend, Murray cites the work of sociologist Roger Geiger, who looked at where students who had the highest five percent SAT or ACT scores in 1997 went to college. Geiger found that ten schools took 20 percent of these brainy students, and 41 schools took half of them.

It’s true that these elite schools seem more meritocratic than they used to be. The power of “old money” to open admission doors has largely disappeared, although there’s still a little room for legacies or the children of celebrities. Even at the oldest colleges, no admission officer cares any more whether a student qualifies for membership in the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution. What they mostly care about are high scores on standardized tests—and a parent’s ability to pay.

To show how homogeneous the elite schools are, Murray cites the findings of sociologist Joseph Soares in his book The Power of Privilege. Soares, using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, shows that, in the 1990s, 79 percent of the students at elite schools came from families with incomes in the highest 25 percent while just two percent came from families with incomes in the bottom quarter.

This matters, Murray argues, because smart rich parents tend to produce smart rich children, who marry people like themselves and pass their genes and wealth on to the future. (Sociologists call this “homogamy.”) As Murray wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2010, “The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both sexes, sends them to the best colleges, unleashes them into an economy that is tailor-made for people with their abilities and lets proximity take its course, the sooner a New Elite becomes a class unto itself.”

Thus, America’s elite colleges and universities have become the breeding ground of the new elite class, cloistered and unable to appreciate or understand other parts of America.

In addition, Murray sees the American elite as morally hollow. The upper class does many things well (including having strong and lasting marriages) but is unwilling and possibly unable to defend the virtues that lead to its success. “The signs that America’s new upper class has suffered a crisis of self-confidence are hard to ignore,” he writes. By being separate from the rest of the nation, this class fails to set an example of good behavior that is necessary for everyone to follow in order to succeed. The elite colleges are implicitly part of that problem.

Intellectuals are known for overthinking problems. I have a nagging suspicion that Murray may have done exactly that in his argument that elite colleges are complicit in America’s “coming apart.” Is it really something new that the brightest young men and women tend to marry and have very bright children and that the upper classes don’t mingle much with the rest of society?

Whatever the answers to those questions, Murray offers no specific solutions, including changes in the role of colleges. Should those schools change admissions policies? He doesn’t say. Should the elite individuals change their lives? All he says is that they should “think about ways to change.” Here, Murray’s long-established cultural pessimism shows through—we’re facing a problem and there isn’t any clear solution to it. I hope it’s not as bad as he claims.