The Myths of Meritocracy

By Cassandra Leveille

As the daughter of affluent professionals, I always thought merit-based aid filled a gap in the funding of higher education for students like me, who excelled in school by traditional measures but did not qualify for need-based aid, even after going through the grueling process of filling out applications for student financial aid offered by the government and the College Board.

My situation when I was applying to college was similar to that of my middle- and upper-class peers but also, in key respects, different. My Haitian immigrant parents had no familiarity with the application process for U.S. colleges. While some of my peers boasted about having their parents write their application essays for them, I used my talent for writing, along with the help (and careful eye for revision) of my English teachers, to compose captivating narratives for my application essays to apply for merit aid. This was my chance to make college more affordable.

I mostly applied to liberal arts colleges with creative writing programs, as I knew I wanted to study writing. While I had little clue about the full costs of attending college, I knew that with an older sister already in college, I had to find a way to ease the burden on my parents.

In other words, to me, merit aid was consistent with the image of America as a meritocracy. After all, my father, a physician, and my mother, who worked as a computer technician before becoming a domestic worker, had worked their way up, spending years shuffling between apartment complexes in Bayside, Queens, and Queens Village before finally moving to an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in Rockville Centre, New York. They had lived the American dream, validating its existence for my sister and me. Why shouldn’t I be rewarded for my hard work and late nights studying and fretting over AP exams?

Yet, in some ways, I am a textbook case of what Peter Sacks describes in his article “Rethinking the Rules of the Higher Education Game”: the daughter “of affluent professionals, students who have attended excellent schools, live in safe and attractive neighborhoods and—most importantly—score reasonably well on their SATs.”

In hindsight, I expect that my ability to get into Ithaca College, or any of the colleges I applied to, for that matter, was a result both of my supposed achievements (that I test well and can write manufactured essays within the span of forty minutes) and of my father’s ability to foot the rest of the bill after the $18,000 rebate. Far from rewarding innate achievement only, merit aid overwhelmingly rewards the class privileges that allow one to be eligible for aid.

My ability to test well and excel at a liberal arts college also intersects with the cultural assumptions of a particular socioeconomic class. For me, going to college was a foregone conclusion—there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. These assumptions were endorsed not only by my parents but also by my secondary educational experience: I attended a Catholic, single-sex school that boasted a 100 percent graduation rate.

Testing to augment vocabulary for the looming SATs was the norm in English literature classes at my school. Guidance counselors did the majority of the legwork in sending out our college applications. So the concrete details and logistics of going to college (to say nothing of whether I would attend college) didn’t need to be discussed, either at school or at home.

My class position also afforded me the ability to buy into a certain reality, a reality that was reinforced by my participation in the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar Program, a merit- and need-based aid scholarship program at Ithaca targeted at traditionally disadvantaged groups. While the program is unique in its focus on developing a consciousness that is grounded in social justice, it also places emphasis on making students “marketable” to employers after graduation and on acculturating them—for example, by teaching dining etiquette in the first year of college. Such lessons place a premium on learning to fit in to upper-class, affluent culture, which, in many ways, is the point. It’s necessary to learn to act like an upper-class person. In twenty-first-century America, how much you make has a direct correlation to how valuable you are perceived to be as a person.

It’s amazing that my parents didn’t attempt more forcefully to deter me from being a writer—even though they knew that being a doctor or a lawyer would make more financial sense in U.S. society, which overwhelmingly devalues “impractical” career options. On move-in day, my father joked to me, “Are you sure you don’t want to transfer to health sciences?” These conversations are not uncommon in second-generation households that are attempting to maintain accumulated wealth in a country that unevenly distributes it along race and class lines. In the Great Recession, transcending social class is now, more than ever, the stuff of myth.

My own class privilege blinded me to the systemic injustices inherent in the higher education system, giving those in my class position, familiar with literary and cultural references and given the resources to flourish, a distinct advantage over those who lacked the resources and cultural assimilation needed to succeed in colleges. Merit aid programs ultimately endorse an American status quo that prizes the never-ending pursuit of wealth and profit above all else, at the expense of those who, to use Sacks’s phrasing, were “not so lucky.” Of course, these attitudes have permeated our educational culture as well. Liberal arts majors joke about living in cardboard boxes after graduation and are often derided, in both popular and campus culture, for taking “easier” course loads and obtaining “worthless” degrees. 

Like most institutions of higher education, Ithaca College is concerned about where it falls in the rankings game. Large spreads outside our bookstore (and inside one of our dining halls) boast of our prestigious rankings in U.S. News and World Report—in the top ten of “Good Schools, Good Prices” in the northeast for twelve straight years (Ithaca’s ticket price is quickly approaching $50,000, but U.S. News and World Report assumes this price is small potatoes to its affluent target audience). Yet, unsurprisingly, the cost of attending a college like Ithaca acts as a great barrier to lower-income students. And those who receive enough aid to attend often feel alienated from their peers, who unknowingly flaunt their class privilege through their behaviors and attitudes. An April 29, 2010, article from The Ithacan, Ithaca College’s weekly student newspaper, noted that working-class students often have difficulty keeping up with the social lives of peers who frequent expensive restaurants and display their material wealth.

Yet, as Sacks notes, the rankings still fail to measure “what colleges and universities actually do for students, in an educational sense.” Sacks suggests that this information would be much more difficult to quantify, and it would force us to reexamine what we would like to gain from the educational experience—aside from a guaranteed job at the end of it all.

I have emerged from Ithaca a more critical thinker with a political consciousness and a language to describe the systemic injustices in our society. Those are skills and states of awareness I didn’t have before. In high school, I had an appreciation for education but mostly just knew how to take tests. College has offered, for the first time, a space where I can think about how to live. In a culture that increasingly views education as simply one more step on the ladder to material wealth, in which students talk of playing “the game” to get a degree, such a mindset fundamentally clashes with the current framework of higher education.

Sadly, I expect we will continue to reward students and families who have the resources to continue to furnish these myths, while leaving the rest by the wayside. 

Cassandra Leveille is a rising senior at Ithaca College and an intern in the AAUP’s communications department.