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By Ben Feuer (educational consultant, Forster-Thomas, Inc.)

Frank Bruni’s feel-good, think-bad article this past weekend was a good read, and an even better reminder of how entrenched the mindset of elitism is in 1% America. By unconsciously focusing on those who already have been given so much and nevertheless feel entitled to more, Bruni illustrates all too clearly the dividing line in this country between privilege and poverty, opportunity and despair.

His basic point is sure to inspire sympathy in anyone who has ever been spurned; IE, anyone, and by reminding parents that a top tier college is not the be-all and end-all of achievement, Bruni offers a dose of common sense for Times-devouring tiger moms with zero perspective.  Bruni takes a shot at everyone’s favorite straw man, the opaque and depressing college admissions process, calling it fatally flawed. Of course it is, if you believe that the purpose of college admissions is to give every elite applicant from Exeter and New Triers a free pass to the next level, which it certainly doesn’t.  (By the way, whether or not your child went to Exeter, if he has his or her own room, you are officially in this elite world.)  In fact, the reason many students find college admissions daunting is because this is the first time they are facing a bar that they cannot easily clear simply by virtue of token effort and fortunate birth.  The really revealing part of the article, actually, is the examples themselves that Bruni uses to make his point.

The truth is, admissions is flawed, but not the way Bruni says it is.  Colleges are still doing a horrible job of providing equal access to all worthy students.  In Bruni’s article, Peter Hart and Jenna Leahy felt out of place when they didn’t get into top schools.  The fact is, the admissions process does a pretty good job of comparing and contrasting people who go to Exeter – – there was probably a good reason, like Jenna’s subpar SAT and Peter’s apparent lack of ambition and maturity on paper, for their rejection. This is an example of the process working the way it is supposed to work; the college passed on Peter and Jenna and instead gave those seats to students that had earned them, hopefully a student from a disadvantaged background whose life will be immeasurably improved by an elite university education.

It is both easy and comforting to blame the system that denies you access – and it’s nice to have a friend at the times to give your venting a megaphone.  Imagine, however, that instead of facing that rejection once, at age 18, you faced it from your mother at age three, who didn’t want you, or from a series of foster parents who turned you over to the state one after another.  Imagine people distrusted you and assumed the worst of you simply because of the color of your skin or the way you dressed.  Imagine going to bed hungry every night and still being expected to finish your homework (with no parents around to help).  For too many Americans, THAT is still the reality they face every day.  College and graduate school applicants sometimes complain that their lack of adversity hurts them on their essays and applications, as indeed it does. They never seem to think about what it’s like to actually live through that adversity that reads so well on those applications. 

The more pertinent question, and the one Bruni completely fails to ask, is why the only way to validate a perceived failure (not getting into a brand name school) is by telling a later success story involving the same brand names that were the villains of the first story. Hart didn’t get into Harvard undergraduate, but then got into Harvard business school, thereby ‘proving them wrong’.  Jenna’s ‘failure’ to get into Emory was redeemed by earning a spot at Teach for America. 

And then to add to the absurdity, YCombinator, as elite a brand as can be imagined, makes itself look good in Bruni’s article at the expense of elite Stanford, a sophisticated piece of social engineering from a brand that has proven itself very adept at self-promotion. We’re so elite, founder Altman argues implicitly, that we don’t need elites. We MAKE them.  Bruni lets him get away with that, but I won’t.  Colleges, despite their flaws, provide training, education, history and jobs to those who need it.  Elite accelerators, whose successes can be counted on the fingers of one hand, take advantage of groupthink and elitism to promote themselves, selling prestige for marketshare while perpetuating the type of vicious cycles that Stanford, at least in part, is trying to stop.

What is this article supposed to prove, Frank?  If you have enough advantages, one failure isn’t going to kill you?   By that logic, ALL the seats at Harvard should go to the underprivileged – after all, when they miss the cut, they don’t go to private school – instead, they take two years of community college (if they’re lucky) and go to work to support their mothers, wives and children.  Elite schools aren’t just about bragging rights for the 1% -- they also offer crucial, life-altering opportunities for the lucky few that manage to run the gauntlet of poverty. And the sad fact is, neither service could exist without the other, at least not in our current system.

So what should we do?  I’d need another thousand words at least to answer that question.  For now, it’s enough to shine a spotlight on the problem and remind people that it’s rude to demand seconds when there are others at the table who haven’t been fed at all.