Age-old Social Climbing Is New Again at Princeton

04/10/2013 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

Princeton had a minor dust-up this week when a middle-aged alumna named Susan Patton wrote a letter to the school newspaper advising female students to find a husband while on campus. Her missive spurred a lot of debate about feminism, biological clocks and the relative merits of marriage vs. career, but it hints at something deeper and broader that was overlooked in the analysis: college as an entrenched aristocracy rather than the meritocracy it purports to be.

Ms. Patton suggests that female students should find a mate at Princeton because of the high "concentration of men who are worthy of you." She refers repeatedly and fairly pretentiously to "intelligence" several times in her letter, (her own, her Princetonian sons', her fellow alumni's), and coldheartedly calculates the slim odds for Princeton women to trade up since, "there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are."

The presumption that everyone at Princeton is there because they are "smarter" than other people belies everything we know about the historical admission practices of elite schools of higher education in the United States, however. I can't help but wonder if Patton is using "intelligence" as a code word for "money" in her scheming calculations.

In fact, there exist two main paths to admission to an Ivy League (or comparable status) school. One is the old-fashioned way where family connections, legacies, money, power, and other forms of inherited leverage smooth the path for easier admission for those born to certain forms of privilege. It's no secret that these schools maintain special categories (i.e., lower standards) of admission for certain preferred categories of people. Some people are born into special consideration; others aren't. Being a legacy admit doesn't always certify one as "smart." Perhaps Patton meant to say "rich" or "entitled." The other way in is to earn admission by your own accomplishments. This is the only route of entry for the aspiring middle and lower economic classes.

All graduates of an elite institution want to believe that their diplomas indicate a true reflection of their worth and ability, but it's simply not so. Despite heady promises of leveling out the admissions playing field, we currently have a college environment where being from a particular social class still counts almost as much as going to class. In fact, the aristocratic students who gain entry due to the circumstances of their birth are in many ways relying on the meritocratic students to imbue their degrees with more credibility than they deserve.

The presence of a campus aristocracy actually undermines the validity of the degree, since aristocrats didn't have to earn their admission by the same competitive standards. In effect, they lower the bar. But they make up for it by fostering the intoxicating allure of the institution with their wealthy lifestyles and powerful pedigrees. And this gets back to the essence of Patton's plea for students to find mates within the hallowed halls.

Whether families admit it to themselves or not, much of the aura of the Ivy League (and a few other select schools) for non-elites comes from the hope that admission based on accomplishment somehow ensures automatic inclusion in the aristocracy. It does not. Meritocrats may enjoy some of the trappings of aristocracy, but not the essence of it, because ultimately, it's based on birth -- bestowed, not earned. The unstated hope, however, is that they might be able to marry into it, if they play their cards right, as Patton eagerly implies.

The wrenching reality is that many families are so desperate for their children to gain a coveted admission spot at an expensive, elite school because deep in their heart-of-hearts, they are hoping that this will allow their child to magically leapfrog social classes. That dream is what they're buying, more than an education. Parents often vaguely express this by saying they expect attendance at a particular name brand college to "open doors."

What exactly does this vague expression mean? Well, apparently for Ms. Patton, it means exactly what it meant back in the 1950s: earning your Mrs. Degree. There is no doubt that much of the current college admissions frenzy in America derives from an unspoken, presumed mating ritual playing out in the minds and hearts of parents which demands that families ante up (or borrow) vast sums of money to place their children into an overpriced college environment hoping their child might thereby marry money and status. It's sort of a modern-day, commercialized version of a Victorian drawing room play. Ms. Patton is merely articulating this subconscious parental script.

A large part of the current country club-ification of higher education (with soaring accompanying costs) relates to the exclusivity factor of this implied marriage market. The forbiddingly high cost of attending an outrageously expensive private college effectively serves as a screening mechanism to keep out undesirables and make it a better place to meet economically acceptable potential mates. The higher the price goes, the more desperate families become to secure a place in the competition for their child. They're buying a shot at the Cinderella dream and the chance for their child to rub shoulders (and perhaps more) with the monied elite. At least Ms. Patton is honest and open about it, speaking from her Upper East Side abode.

The aristocracy and the meritocracy make uncomfortable bedfellows in American colleges these days, though, and we're not supposed to notice or comment on the lived distinction between the two. The members of the college aristocracy can study anything they like because their futures are assured by privilege, entitlement, connections and cash reserves, while those in the meritocracy have to work to pay off their college debts after they graduate and therefore have to be very careful about what they study, to ensure that it has immediate marketplace value. If they don't, they'll quickly regret it.

How often do the aristocracy and meritocracy intermarry via college? Well, I don't have solid statistics on this, but I would venture to say not as often as people might imagine since data on social mobility indicate that class rigidity is increasing in America. Money marries money, after all.

Is it worth re-mortgaging your home, cashing in your retirement accounts and potentially saddling your child with decades of debt if you're gambling on the chance for her to mingle with potentially desirable mates from ages 18-21, despite the fact that the age of first marriage in this country keeps rising steadily and is now nearly age 27 for women? Is this really what elite colleges are selling and families are purchasing?

You decide.