After a tragedy destroys his home, and with nothing left in his native Russia, young Fievel Mouskevitz — the central character in the 1986 movie “An American Tail,” moves with his family to America. Enamored with an image of the United States, Fievel’s father hopes to build a better life for his family in the West — “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!”
While most people haven’t even heard of the film — which came out when many University students were barely out of diapers — everyone is familiar with the underlying theme: America is the fabled “land of opportunity.” For generations, people have flocked here for jobs, money and a better life. Unlike Europe, which was ruled by a landed aristocracy for centuries, America has always been the land of common-folk — the place where democracy was revived and everyone can climb the socioeconomic ladder. Even today, The Economist reports that only a mere 32 percent of Americans believe their destiny is controlled by social factors out of their control.
On one hand, America’s top jobs are given away in a far more merit-based manner than ever before. That college students must continually struggle to find internships, get the right grades and create a well-rounded resume indicates credentials — not connections — are the main influence in hiring decisions. On the other hand, getting to college isn’t based solely on hard work — socioeconomic class prevents many Americans from enrolling in a university. While America may be meritocratic and competitive in that it rewards those who work hard and demonstrate merit at college, social status is a critical determinant of whether someone even gets a chance to attend college and compete.
With the advent of the “new economy,” a college degree has become a prerequisite to success. Unfortunately, the education system has increasingly restricted itself to those who are already privileged. A University study revealed that 55 percent of students attending come from families making over $100,000 a year, and 13 percent come from families that make over $250,000. At private universities, the situation is worse: median family income at Harvard is around $150,000. That private universities are bastions of wealth is nothing new and not of significant concern. The growing inaccessibility of public universities, however, has grave implications for the romantic notion of a merit-based, opportunity-filled society.
Tuition, which has been increasing at far faster rate than inflation, bars many from pursing higher education. In Michigan, a series of ill-conceived tax cuts during the last decade have coupled with a state constitutional amendment that requires the public to approve income tax increases to create an intractable structural budget deficit. Year after year, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has moved to balance the budget by slashing spending for higher education — despite a commission report indicating that education must be at the core of any plan to revive Michigan’s ailing economy. In response to sustained cuts, the University has reacted predictably — with tuition hikes. If compared to the private institutions with which the University aims to compete, the cost of attending the University is still remarkably low. But when an in-state student must spend around $10,000 a year just on tuition and books, does it still fulfill its promise of providing an uncommon education to a common man?
The wage gap between those who have college degrees and those who don’t has widened significantly within our lifetimes, and the growing pressures of a globalizing economy will only force greater inequality. The increasing costs of college, unfortunately, are making it harder for those who have not already attended college to either themselves earn or enable their children to earn a degree. While well over 70 percent of students at America’s best universities come from the top quarter of the socioeconomic ladder, merely 3 percent come from the bottom (The Economist). If the vast majority of those benefiting from higher education are those who already sit at the top of society, how much social mobility exists?
The American meritocracy, which hinges on the belief that hard work can make dreams come true, is becoming more aristocratic; destiny is not independent of birth. This goes beyond the impact of legacy admissions, which account for 10 to 15 percent of any given Ivy League graduating class. This boils down to a fundamental question of inherited privilege: were you born into an economic class that permits you to afford and attend college?
Fievel’s father has his preconceived notions of America discredited almost immediately after arriving: we have cats, and our streets are paved with stone. At what point will we, as students lucky enough to attend one of the top universities in the world, recognize that our homegrown notion — that America is the land of unfettered meritocracy and opportunity for all — is equally irrational?
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org