Is the US becoming a status society?

Let me recount an anecdote. The last time I was in New York City was to attend the (exceptional) Personal Democracy Forum in 2007. Before the start of a session I overheard the following conversation between an attractive young girl and a tall, skinny, shy young man:

Her: “So, what do you do?”

Him: “I’m starting law school next fall.”

Her: “Where?”

Him: “Um, UCLA.”

Her: “Niiiiiiiiice.“ (Seriously.) “Where’d you go to college?”

Him: “Uh, Harvard.”

Her: (Several seconds of shocked silence.) “…Oh.”

Him: “Yeah, uh, that’s, uh…never easy to say.”

France is very much a status society, where you went to school is a big part of that status. In a revealing turn of phrase, people will say, in insider-y shorthand, “She is X-Mines-Sciences Po-ENA” rather than “She went to.”

I’m afraid that the US is trending in the same direction. A vital strength of American society is its greater mobility and pragmatism, the fact that people tend to be more valued for who they are and what they do than where they went to school. (Of course it’s a cliché, but I still think it’s true in the aggregate.)

In the earliest stages of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, when there was little else on his resume, I had to cringe each time his presidency of the Harvard Law Review was breathlessly cited as a qualification for the Presidency of the United States. I mean, good for him, and I do believe other accomplishments of his qualified him for the Presidency, but are you frickin’ kiddin’ me?

I share Brad DeLong’s vision of a social democratic university and his admiration for the University of California system which, by growing and opening its doors while maintaining standards, managed to contribute to an incredible extent to equality and economic growth in California. But the incentives of Ivy League and Ivy-like schools are aligned in exactly the opposite direction: when they don’t grow with demand, it makes them even more selective, which makes them seem even more unattainable, which only increases their prestige. (Incidentally, this is why I have a lot of faith in for-profit universities.)

I swallowed with utter fascination Ross Douthat ‘s wonderful, and in my view very important book Privilege. I read it because of my interest in US higher education, but I was surprised to find so many things that reminded me of the French grandes écoles, the disregard for serious pursuits of the mind, a certain kind of entitled nihilism, and a spirit which an article in the French review Esprit called “care-free success” (la réussite insouciante). And we’ve all read the stories about the driven parents with the robo-children who have two SAT tutors, play three instruments and speak four languages.

Today, of course, the question is what the CRRRRRISIS (imagine this in a booming dramatic voice-over) will do to the status of the great universities and their credentials.

On the one hand, the crisis knocked off a big part of the schools’ endowments, lowering their pedestal. And of course, the old cursus honorum of, as 1,000% hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde put it, “idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA” is blown for a little while.

On the other hand… First of all, in the short term, as more people look to further study as a dodge from a difficult labor market, these schools’ selectivity might edge up even further. Besides, even though things are getting harder for Harvard MBAs, it’s even worse for second-tier school grads, so top degree holders will still make out ahead. More importantly, a slowdown of economic activity tends to weaken social mobility. No matter how many banks may fall, you’ll still have many wealthy and influential Ivy grads in the top echelons of American society — but less entrepreneurs, less innovators… (Not that there isn’t overlap between Ivy grads and innovators of course!)

So, perhaps paradoxically, a Harvard or Yale degree might get to be seen as even more of an awe-inspiring key to the world, where you went to school might come to define even more of who you are.

I don’t want to slip into “them high-falutin’ Ivy League elites” populism, if only because I’d be insulting half the writers in this tremendous place, and of course we are still much better off than in the days of Jewish quotas, but I still believe this is a worrying trend, and that it might continue.