In "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," T. Greer discusses how class stratification and success is increasingly being concentrated in the Ivy League elites.
The world places higher emphasis on education and intelligence than it used to. The demand for brain power has increased. For this reason the instruction gained or achievements made in pursuit of a PhD or Ivy League degree are often less important than the possession of the degree itself. Regardless of what you studied, simply having a PhD from Harvard proves to employers that you are one of the few people with the intelligence and work ethic needed to get a PhD from Harvard. (The connections made in an Ivy League school are another lucrative side bonus).
The story is larger than Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but the subsequent careers of Ivy League alumni reveal a lot about the nature of America's class woes. An Ivy League education is the most direct route to the heights of American wealth and power: Wall Street firms fix hiring quotas to ensure that enough graduates from the Ivy League's most prestigious schools are hired (an offer graduates are glad to take - in 2009 40% of Princeton undergrads went to Wall Street after graduation!), while those with more ambition have access to even greater heights. 10% of U.S. Senators, 50% of all U.S. billionaires, and 60% of the President's cabinet have Ivy League alma maters to their name.
It is a narrow funnel from which to form a ruling class.But the flip side of the coin is that it is more difficult for smart, but poor, children to get ahead. On this point, Greer observes:
As Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard show in a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, very few high-achieving students from low-income households end up even applying to a selective college. (Here, "high-achieving" is defined as the top 10 percent of overall test-takers on the SAT I or ACT, and a "selective" college is one of the top 236 schools in the country.) This, of course, is not how high-achieving, high-income students play the college admissions game. They follow their guidance counselors' advice, and apply to a few "reach" schools, a handful of "match" schools, and a "safety" school or two.
...It's a totally different game for high-achieving, low-income students, because nobody tells them how to play it. Aside from magnet school kids, they mostly don't have parents or teachers or counselors with much experience applying to selective colleges. Nor do many know, despite the best efforts of the schools to inform them otherwise, that the most selective colleges have very generous financial aid packages that can take tuition all the way down to zero. Indeed, Harvard is pretty much free, including room and board, for students whose parents make $65,000 or less....
This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not. ...(quoting "'The Great Gatsby Curve': Why It's So Hard for the Poor to Get Ahead" by Matthew O'Brian). That was my own experience: finishing in the 99% on the SAT, but not even trying for a high ranking university because I didn't know how I could afford to pay for it. Now I know enough to tell my son to just go for it--that if the school wants you, they will figure out a way for you to be there.