In the history of American higher education, the Ivy League has gradually departed from the athletic conference that gave the group its name and became the synonym for the most prestigious universities in America. If a student manages to enter an Ivy League school today, it means that he or she has climbed to the top of the ivory tower, which guarantees a smoother pathway to vocational and financial success post graduation. The main problem of American Higher Education today, however, lies not only in institution gatekeeping itself, but also in the fact that these meritocratic walls consolidate the social stratification in the American society. The education system in this way loses its purpose of educating the next generation in the sense of opening doors for them. In fact, the Ivy wall ensures that the doors close for students of low-socioeconomic status before they enter society.
The term “Ivy League” was used as early as 1933 to name the collegiate athletic conference that consisted of sports teams from eight private universities in Northeastern America. It became an official term upon the formation of NCAA Division I athletic conference in 1954. The eight institutions are: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. They now become the embodiments of prestige and social elitism in the education system in the United States.
The troubled history of the Ivy League went further back than the establishment of the term in 1933 and 1954. Seven out of the eight Ivy League institutions were founded during the colonial period. Historian Craig Steven Wilder discusses in his book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, how slave trading directly shaped and funded the Ivy League universities at their early stages. Wilder shows that “profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts.” He also traces the practice of generous donations in exchange for the enrollment of sons back to this period. Today this practice in its most overt form is not deemed lawful anymore. Yet, it still continues to exist in the form of “legacy”: the privileged families foster a tradition of sending their children to their alma mater, and the elite universities acknowledge this tradition by giving “legacy” students priorities. It is also not a secret that a lot of America’s universities and colleges depend their existence on donations from their wealthy alumni.
As Wilder sees it, from the beginning, the Ivy wall was built to protect the wealth of the American landowners. It is a useful segregation in the sense that it allows the accumulation of resources, which otherwise would have been scattered. If a student, regardless of his or her socioeconomic background, gets accepted to an Ivy League school today, it would almost guarantee his or her economic stability after graduation just because of the personnel and material resources he or she is able to access, not to mention the prestige of the Ivy League seal of approval. This is why many lower-class students still exert themselves in climbing the education ladder despite the awareness of their inherited disadvantage in the competition, and this mindset is oftentimes encouraged by parents.
Sociologist Ann L. Mullen (University of Toronto), the author of Degrees of Inequality, argues that there are many factors that contribute to the patterns of inequality within the American education system, including social background, race, ethnicity, gender, and perhaps most shockingly, the choice of students from different socioeconomic statuses. Her studies show that differences in academic ability, which is what some might expect to be the most decisive factor in admission into high-ranked colleges, is not among the reasons why the majority of low-socioeconomic status students are denied entrance into the Ivy League. According to Mullen, the Ivy wall functions in a way that “facilitates the reproduction of class privilege and contributes to the dynamic whereby a system charged with ensuring equality of opportunity may in fact promote the reproduction of inequality.”*
The Ivy-divide, or the Ivy wall, is hence both useful and divisive for the very same reason: it separates the privileged from the underprivileged so that wealth and wealth creation opportunities remain concentrated within a small group in the society. By preventing underprivileged qualified students from climbing over the Ivy wall, America’s highly differentiated system of higher education loses its function of being a space of experiment and choice for students, and above all, a space for encountering differences. The stratification of students within the ivory tower in many ways reflects the stratification of the American society.
Students of color studying at an Ivy League school today would have a not so different experience than entering the job market in that they would have to survive within a predominantly white environment. A large part of the struggle pertains to identity politics. Racial inequality is insinuated into the classroom when students of color faces lower expectations than their fellow white students, or a syllabus of American literature includes no black writers, or when a philosophy department offers mostly Ancient Greek, Roman and Continental philosophy.
In this sense, the Ivy wall divides within and without. It not only makes it difficult for underprivileged students to enter the elite tier, but also reproduces social stratification within the elite tier itself. Patterns of stratification in higher education in America thus demand scrutiny of not just the admission policies, but much more.
Here are more readings on the subject of inequality in the American higher education system:
Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges –and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.
Don Hossler, Jack Schmit, and Nick Vesper, Going to College: How Social, Economic, and Educational Factors Influence the Decisions Students Make.
Ann L. Mullen, Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class and Gender in American Higher Education.
Horace A. Porter, The Making of a Black Scholar: from Georgia to the Ivy League.
Jacques Steinberg, The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.
Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity among Black Women in College.
Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.