The Golden Ticket: College, Elites, and the Myth of Upward Mobility

At a time when economic inequity is outpacing our growth, it’s time to confront the supposed “great equalizer.”


The Crest of the Ivy League Universities, a symbol of the golden ticket that many high school seniors aspire.

Curled up under a blanket to cool my heightened anxiety, I sent in a single application to Yale University – a summation of who I was, my pitch for why they should offer me the golden ticket to their institution. Years of sleepless nights studying for the SAT, cramming in extracurricular work, and perfecting each and every word of my Personal Statement led up to this moment. And with a 2-second confetti animation, and a large “Congratulations” to compliment it, that moment was over.For many Americans across the nation, including myself, that day of reckoning, and the drive to even apply in the first place, is part of a widespread myth that we believe – that a “golden ticket” to an elite university is the key to upward mobility. Today, high-paying positions at America’s top consulting, law, and tech firms are open to only a small subset of college graduates. Facebook hires more than 80% of its employees from elite universities. The same goes for Google. A recent study by Indeed, the top job site worldwide, found that 29% of managers preferred only hiring from top institutions, while 48% said the
caliber of the institution played a “somewhat important role.” Only “4% don’t care about the name on an employer’s degree”. The perception of security that comes with winning one of those job positions, and the subsequent scramble to move up the socioeconomic totem pole, has led to what The Washington Post in 2017 calls “Ivy League mania”.To put it simply, Americans believe that the course of their life (and their family’s) can be defined by a single acceptance letter. The reality behind that assumption, though, is nothing more than a myth – the degree of our success outcome starts far before an application.
Where the Pipeline BeginsFunding, particularly in America’s public schools, lays the groundwork for our story. Depending on the amount of money spent per child in a given school district, students are afforded varying degrees of educational and extracurricular opportunities – today, however, there is widespread inequity in the distribution of funds.According to the Education Law Center’s 2021 “Making the Grade” report, “Per-student spending ranges widely from state to state and varies considerably from year to year, depending on property values, tax revenues, budgetary constraints, and political conditions.” In low-income districts, where property values and tax revenues are lower, for example, schools in those districts get less funding.In Chicago’s Ridge School District, where of students come from low-income families, spending per student is $9,794. In Chicago’s Rondout School District, located in an affluent suburb less than an hour north, per student spending sits at a whopping $28,639. While the state of Illinois gives more money to Ridge than Rondout through Title I funding, the playing field is hardly equalized.While Hawai’i is the only state to not use property taxes as a source of funding for public schools, inequity still exists and persists. Hawai’i currently spends $11,822 per student in its sole district, which, on face value, is similar to the national average. However, Ray L’Heureux, chairman and president of the Education Institute of Hawai’i, asserts that analyzing the funding amount this way is misleading – a fairer comparison would look at school districts with similar high costs of living. When Hawai’i is pinned up against New York City’s $24,100 and Washington D.C.’s $19,150, there is a glaring gap in the allocation of our resources. When our funding is inequitable, moreover, student achievement outcomes are inequitable. A 2019 study conducted by the Center for American Progress found that increased spending on
education leads to better student outcomes, with the positive effects even greater on low-income students – who typically don’t have access to core services like childhood education, quality teachers, and exposure to rigorous curriculum. Even the 3.4 million low-income K-12 children ranking in the top quartile academically, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “lose more educational ground and excel less frequently than their higher-income peers,” a gap created by inequitable funding distribution.As students progress toward a college education, low-income students tend to find themselves in community colleges and regional public universities with lower success rates, as opposed to the high-income students attending elite private and flagship public campuses. Lavishly equipped universities like Yale, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, and Stanford have roughly 15% of their student body made up of low-income students, further showcasing the long-lasting, reverberating impact of a dollar sign.The American education system is constructed in a way where our zip code matters more than the rare spark of academic ambition. From the very beginning, students are hindered from even the chance to apply to an Ivy League school, let alone get into one. An acceptance, then, can hardly be the great equalizer when the road to acceptance is unequal.
Where the Grass is GreenerTwo years have passed since Rick Singer made headlines for weaseling the children of elites into the nation’s most prestigious institutions. From helping students cheat on the SAT and ACT (for a price tag of $75,000) to manufacturing athletic careers, Singer ran a company that provided America’s wealthy with the surefire security of an Ivy League acceptance. One would think that the rich and powerful would care less about the name on their child’s degree, given that they’d have financial security no matter their collegiate destination. But, according to Daniel Golden, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates”, it’s part of an upper-class culture – boasting about generations of Harvard alumna and their successful imprimatur at “Hollywood cocktail parties.”The “golden ticket” to an elite university, no less, isn’t a gateway to upward mobility – it’s an indicator of status, the key to an upper-class culture of nepotism and power.It’s no wonder, then, that wealthy (and even middle-class) parents scramble to enhance their child’s standardized testing scores with test prep and tutoring; levy business connections for
internship and extracurricular opportunities; or as is the case for Hawai’i, throw their child into a
private school.For that last point, the differences in culture are stark – put simply by Sterling Higa’s Civil Beat Community Voice, “At schools like Punahou and Iolani, the question isn’t whether students will attend college. The question is which college they will attend.”For high school juniors and seniors standing in the long shadow of the admissions process, the perception of prestige imprinted by the elite can be damaging as well, causing tens of thousands of students across the nation to scramble for a few spots at an elite university. For Kamehameha Schools senior Logan Lau, this has become an overwhelming fear to grapple with. “Competition for gaining acceptance to elite universities is exponentially increasing,” he said. “I perpetually feel the stress and intensity of the need to be exceptional.”Because of this, students have sacrificed the high school experience in favor of committing countless hours to AP courses, SAT prep, and extracurricular activities. “Sometimes, it’s too much to just be a kid,” said Lau.
From Behind the GatesFor the small percent of low-income students accepted into some of America’s most prestigious universities, a tall barrier still stands between them and matriculation – the cost of attendance.In a report by CNBC in 2021, the likelihood of high school students to attend a four-year school “sank nearly 20% in the last eight months – down to 53% from 71%.” With tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaging roughly $50,770 in the 2020-21 school year, the cost of college has quickly outpaced family income and inflation, leading to this drop.The Princeton Review’s 2021 College Hopes & Worries survey furthers this, finding that students and parents now say affordability and dealing with college debt is their top concern, with 98% of families saying financial aid would be necessary to pay for their collegiate education.Kaila Labra, a Kamehameha Schools senior who has aspirations of applying to New York University, one of the nation’s flagship public universities, is frustrated with the high price tag associated with college. “The cycle doesn’t make sense in America,” she says. “In order to be rich, you need to get a good education; but in order to get a good education, you need to be rich.”Even for students who receive considerable amounts of financial aid, moreover, the reality of lower incomes creates inequality in college experiences. In a piece by Harvard professor
Anthony Abrahram Jack, published in the New York Times, he explains the hungry days he’d chart during school breaks, where he’d have to stay on campus (when food wasn’t served) because he couldn’t afford to return home. Forced to balance schoolwork with four jobs and the duty of sending remittances back home, Jack’s undergraduate experience differed heavily from his peers’.Attending elite colleges, unfortunately, is a tale written for those privileged enough to write it – without the worry of financial obligations.Where We Go From HereAt a time when college is only growing the already ever-persistent inequity in our society, the burden falls on those very institutions to overhaul the systems that allow it to persist.CollegeBoard’s recent launch of Landscape, a service that allows admissions to take into consideration the environmental context of a given student, is a step in the right direction toward educational equity, but is far from enough. The federal government should increase Title I funding to low-income schools across the nation to level the playing field; public universities should be made tuition-free, just like their secondary school counterparts; standardized testing should be eliminated as a form of academic measurement.For Hawai’i, we need to increase transparency in the allocation of DOE funds, close the gap between private and public schools, and for Kamehameha Schools in particular, levy the resources of our institution to provide more academic opportunities for Native Hawaiians outside of our enrolled population (through now discontinued programs like Explorations).By fighting for equity, for an equal starting point for all, we can truly promote upward mobility in more ways than a golden ticket to the Ivy League ever could. Our hopes and dreams shouldn’t be dictated by something as simple as a zip code – and channeling our collective action together, it won’t need to any longer.