Those of a certain age may remember Paul Fussell's amusing book Class: A guide through the American status system, from 1983. Fussell breaks US society into nine classes, plus a non-class called X, according to the tastes and ambitions that are typical of each. Diet, dress, décor, hobbies, language—each is linked to a class's distinctive trait, be it the carefree self-assurance of the upper-middle class, the simpering conventionality of the middle class, or the fearful striving of the high proles. Forty years after publication, it is still good for a few chuckles.
It is Chapter VI, "The Life of the Mind", that concerns us here at OTLSS. The higher-education scam turns out to be nothing new (at 132–33):
The assumption that "a college degree" means something without the college's being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of the higher learning. For example: Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers, was persuaded as late as 1959 that the idea of "a college diploma" carried sufficient meaning to justify the class designation "the Diploma Elite." Quite wrong. To represent affairs accurately, you'd have to designate an "Elite Diploma Elite," because having a degree from Amherst or Williams or Harvard or Yale should never be confused with having one from Eastern Kentucky University or Hawaii Pacific College or Arkansas State or Bob Jones.… As late as 1972 Packard is still taking that rosy egalitarian view and thus still making the same essential mistake. In A Nation of Strangers he writes cheerfully, "In 1940 about 13 percent of college-age young people actually went to college; by 1970 it was about 43 percent." But no. It was still about 13 percent, the other 30 percent attending things merely denominated colleges. These poor kids and their parents were performing the perpetual American quest not for intellect but for respectability and status.
Indeed, college/university was long ago decoupled from intellect—something not especially common at Harvard and Yale—and reduced to a status-seeking device. When Fussell wrote those words, a bachelor's degree was still decidedly a luxury, the high-school diploma having only recently become de rigueur. About six years later, however, the BA was being billed as essential: one could not expect to find decent work without it. From that time on, young people have been herded into the universities whether or not they have any intellectual ambitions, or even two functioning brain cells to rub together.
Fussell rudely hits the nail on the head with the observation that "the only meaningful educational distinction today is that between the college-educated and the 'college'-educated" (at 133). The scare quotes imply a correct sneer upon those many institutions—more than two thousand already in Fussell's day—that can politely be called non-selective but that over the past several decades have caparisoned themselves with the name "college" or "university". What we might call toilet colleges—the great majority—thrive on a reputation earned in generations past but no longer deserved. "[T]he statement 'He (or she) is a college graduate,' … long years ago, might have carried some weight. But by the 1950s the scene had changed.… The word [college] remained unchanged while the reality altered drastically" (at 132).
Cui bono? More to the point, cui malo? Referring pointedly to "the college swindle" and "the great college-and-status hoodwink" (at 134), Fussell harbors no illusions (at 133–34):
One of the saddest social groups today consists of that 30 percent that during the 1950s and 1960s struggled to "go to college" and thought they'd done that, only to find their prolehood still unredeemed, and not merely intellectually, artistically, and socially, but economically as well. In Social Standing in America, Coleman and Rainwater found that going to a good college—or in my view, a real one—increased one's income by 52 percent, while going to a really good one … increased it by an additional 32 percent over that. But they found that you achieved "no income advantage" if you graduated from a "nonselective" college… No income advantage at all.
The rich fill the élite academies, while "'[t]he newly arrived, eager, upwardly mobile person,' says Leonard Reissman, 'sweaty from his climb up the class ladder, wipes his brow and learns that the doors to full recognition and acceptance are still closed to him" (at 134). Consequently, "the effect of the whole system is to stabilize class rigidity under the color of opening up genuine higher learning to everyone" (ibid).
Fussell locates this college swindle "largely during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations" (at 135), when hundreds upon hundreds of institutions of a vocational rather than an academic character springboarded themselves into the ranks of "universities", for which status they were quite ill prepared. This "unearned promotion … was simply an acceleration of a process normal in this country—inflation, hyperbole, bragging" (ibid).
Hovering above this heap of unduly elevated institutions is an élite group, generously as many as 200 strong, that do confer some cachet. Columbia and the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Swarthmore and Carlow College, exist in a dialectical, heads-and-tails unity of opposites. The Dartmouth sweatshirt says as much as the bumper sticker for Eureka College. Indeed, "colleges and universities are the current equivalent of salons and levees and courts" (at 141).
Fussell's book is contemporaneous with the notorious "rankings" of You Ass News, which somehow crowned itself supreme authority on the relative merits of allegedly academic institutions. Those "rankings" filled, and fill, a socially constructed need for reducing prestige to a single handy-dandy metric. Thus we hear fools gloat of attending the 179th best college, or the 38th best law school. (Incidentally, genuflecting to authority betrays the middle class, according to Fussell.) The élite academies pack their cohorts principally with the scions of the top three classes (top-out-of-sight, upper, upper-middle); the middle class and the three "prole" classes are stuck with Zero College and East Bumblefuck University. These no-account establishments may seek the bubble reputation through a male football or basketball team, but that too has its limits, and only a few dozen can attain the athletic veneer of respectability. No matter: none of them offers real intellectual or aesthetic fulfillment, nor even much potential for a decent job.
People who 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago would never have gone beyond high school (and might well not have graduated) now scheme for a college as high up the You Ass News "rankings" as possible. Yet from position 200 or so to the end there is no real difference in prestige: they are toilets, one and all. Unfortunately, this information is not widely known or understood, so undistinguished schools flourish at the expense of ambitious but misguided members of the public.
The same is true of law schools. As many as thirteen (Harvard and Yale above all others) may confer genuine prestige; the rest, only a fake prestige if any at all. Although there is real potential for an enterprising person of humble background to land at a Harvard or a Michigan, monetizing the degree may prove difficult—and boasting about a prestigious law school won't pay the bills.
The proliferation of law schools and universities is no eleemosynary project; it is a quest for profit in a day bereft of such traditional options as factory work. There may be twenty lousy schools for every one of recognized merit. Serial "rankings" by the likes of You Ass News delude the public into supposing that schools stand on a continuum, when really they fall into two groups: an élite and all the rest. This was true in the 1950s, according to Fussell, and today it is true in spades. Do not fall for non-selective undergraduate institutions or law schools.