Though the initial panic of quarantine has simmered down, economic stresses for lower-income families still remain. Businesses have closed, Americans have been terminated for sickness, and medical staff have been forced to work under hazardous conditions. We were previously told that schools and workplaces could never be remote, but, unsurprisingly, that wasn’t true.
While I will say that, as a high school junior myself, the quality of our online education isn’t equal to that of in-person classes, I understand that it’s partly because students and teachers alike are learning to adapt. We hadn’t anticipated an outbreak of this severity, or how multifaceted its consequences would be. But we should’ve. The crisis we’re experiencing now cannot merely be attributed to COVID-19. Really, it’s only exacerbated the issues that were always festering beneath the surface.
We turned a blind eye because we believed—and in turn, perpetuated—the myth of meritocracy: that success is determined by skill. That as long as you’re able-bodied, intelligent, and persistent, your dreams will manifest themselves. Meritocracy promises reward for effort, not social origin. The problem isn’t with the ideal, but the assumption that America is even meritocratic. To say that success is purely dependent on individual prowess is ignorant; it disregards the diverse conditions in which individuals grow up—economic status, quality of education, and overall resources available. It downplays these external factors and instead blames victims for their circumstances.
For many families, including my own, college is seen as the best opportunity to better yourself intellectually and financially. You go to a prestigious school—i.e. one in the Ivy League—and you’re set for life. Yes, these schools may be the best in the country, but we have to consider the admissions process. Why is it that these schools are full of the elite? Is it because students of high social class just happen to be the brightest, or is it because their wealth gives them educational privileges?
Well, compared to the working class, the rich are at a great advantage—not only with money but with time. They have time to be existential, to ask “am I happy?” and do something about it if the answer is no. The working class cannot spare any time; if they do, they may sacrifice financial gain. They live to work. Meanwhile, children are pressured to excel academically because a good higher education is the only avenue left. Parents cannot switch career paths without great risk, so the burden is placed on the children to elevate the family. (It’s no shock that the impoverished are at a greater risk of mental illness.) And while the lower class is working just to stay afloat, the elite has time to bolster their resumes with extracurriculars—essential to college appeal. AP exams, which can decrease tuition by providing college credit, cost $94 or more. The SAT and ACT cost $49.50 and $46, respectively. Private schools inflate grades, giving their students an edge over public schools. Additionally, money gives access to better K-12 education, tutors, and preparatory resources for standardized testing.
College Board, which develops the SAT, PSAT, and APs, has monopolized the education system. From 2007 to 2018, they operated on a 4 to 14 percent profit margin for APs alone, which translated to $40 to $140 million. If College Board is a non-profit committed to “access and equity for all students” (as stated on their site), why have they increased their exam prices while maintaining millions in profit? This year, rather than refunding students, they created new 45-minute exams that certainly didn’t assess all the year’s content. Does this really display their commitment to providing quality education? Is it fair that these exams carry so much weight in the admissions process?
Now, in the wake of COVID-19, the admission process has changed. Universities such as UC schools, BU, and Harvard have dropped SAT and ACT requirements. College Board has offered a plethora of free study tools. So here’s the real question: why couldn’t any of this have happened before?
Even with College Board’s accommodations, the playing field isn’t equalized. Thousands of students, myself included, found themselves disadvantaged by technical difficulties (which are the subject of a $500 million lawsuit). My faulty Wi-Fi prevented me from submitting my AP exam. I’m sure this is the case for many others, although College Board pins submission failures primarily on outdated browsers. But regardless of the exact reason, remote learning and exams have highlighted the technological disparities between socioeconomic classes. Those who can afford the best devices are likely to have completed their exams without as much trouble. While some schools have addressed this issue by distributing free devices, they still neglect students without internet access. What use are laptops and iPads if they can’t reach their online classrooms? Why does Wi-Fi cost money at all? In the digital age, internet access is crucial to human connection. We need it to text, keep up with the news, and even go to school. Its commodification is another example of how America punishes the poor and rewards the rich.
The issue doesn’t end with college acceptance, either. Students pour thousands of dollars into higher education and still aren’t guaranteed job security. In 2019, more than one-third of people 25 years old or older had at least a bachelor’s degree. Though current generations have sought higher education than their parents, their income remains relatively the same. So, students grind in high school to get into expensive universities but might not get hired? If America was meritocratic, wouldn’t these students be rewarded for their diligence?
In the 1940s, children were earning at least 90% more than their parents. Today, children earn only 50% more. It takes approximately five generations for a low-income (bottom 10%) family to reach average income in the U.S. Additionally, only 45% of children are likely to earn a higher education than their parents. This is frustrating because in 2017, 38 colleges including Yale, Princeton, and Brown admitted more students in the top 1% than the bottom 60%. This proves that the people most likely to succeed intellectually and financially are those who were born into wealth. On top of that, as legacies and athletic recruitments are predominantly white and upper-class, it’s evident that higher education is just helping the privileged.
From the get-go, lower-income folks are wronged. They’re expected to perform as well as their peers with less time and resources. Then, even if they have good grades and an accomplished resume, universities will favor the rich.
Simply put, America is a plutocracy and always has been. Money is power.
By Esme Lee
Visual by Julianna Brion