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  • Dániel Csuja

Behind the Scenes of Meritocracy in the United States

Although a meritocracy may be the goal of education in the United States, it is clear to see just how disproportionate educational opportunities are for many American students.


One would think that there is no better approach to provide equal opportunity for everyone than when people get ahead based on their own accomplishment rather than their parents’ social class, race, or gender. It is hard to object to the idea of meritocracy. In the 1960’s United States the early meritocrats strongly believed in meritocracy as an efficient way of breaking established caste order surrounding heredity, race and religion. But by analysing the statistics it becomes clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no doubt that a candidate needs to be extremely well-trained and super-skilled to get admitted to the so-called Ivy League, which is the group of the most elite colleges in the US. But the main question remains: who can afford to achieve well in a meritocratic system in today’s America? According to the statistics, with certain exceptions, only the richest parents are in possession of resources to educate their children well. So, in order to be called talented, you need extraordinary socio-economic circumstances rather than natural talent. And money buys results. If you take a quick view of the chart below, you can see that an elite private high school spends 9 times more money per student than a school in Mississippi. But the gap remains outstanding if you compare a school in a “super-rich” district with an elite private school where 80% of parents earn over 200 000$ a year.

Source: Daniel Markovits: The Meritocracy Trap, a lecture at London School of Economics

As I mentioned before, money buys results, teachers’ attention and careful educational programmes. Those students who are educated in elite schools score 250 points higher in an SAT test on average than students without attending a fancy school. That is a huge difference which emerges if we examine the parental background of elite universities’ students. What we are seeing here is a massive intergenerational transfer of advantage and an enormous inequality in education investment. Parents who earn the most turned out to be better at educating their children than any other socioeconomic group. There are more kids in the most prestigious universities whose parents are in the top 1% in the income distribution than the entire bottom half.

The meritocratic system became so competitive in the last decades that it puts everyone to a state of constant struggle. What it really means is that having rich parents is almost a necessary condition for getting ahead in the education system. But at the same time being born to a rich family is still not a sufficient condition. Even if you have all the privilege in the world, but you find yourself side-tracked during your studies, show apathy towards studying extremely hard or one of your parents turns out to be unable to work, the system prevents you from being accepted into universities since the admission rates are historically the lowest - around 5% at the top colleges.

As one can understand from the shocking statistics, one of the most relevant questions to ask in today’s America is what to do with the education system? You can read about it in my next article, so stay tuned!

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