"Poison Ivy" author Evan Mandery: "Elite colleges are harmful to society"

The Ivy League schools don't have better teaching or higher quality educations. They do help perpetuate inequity

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 20, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

High Angle View Of Graduates (Getty Images / Alan Varajas / EyeEm)
High Angle View Of Graduates (Getty Images / Alan Varajas / EyeEm)

It was a surprising and — as the New York Times put it — "dramatic" set of announcements. On Wednesday, both Yale and Harvard decided to withdraw their law schools from consideration in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation's "best" institutions. In a statement, Yale Law School Dean Heather K. Gerken dropped the hammer, saying, "U.S. News rankings are profoundly flawed — they disincentivize programs that support public interest careers, champion need-based aid, and welcome working-class students into the profession."

Yet the fundamental rot in the American university system goes far deeper than any system of rankings. As author, John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and Harvard Law alumnus Evan Mandery explores in his new book "Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us," it's our Ivy League and elite "Ivy plus" schools that perpetuate a disingenuous narrative of merit and achievement — and the illusion of opportunity.

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Drawing on individual stories and fascinating data, Mandery shows that while our so-called top schools are indeed a path to mobility and security for most students, that mobility and security are accessible almost exclusively to the already well-off. And it's a self-perpetuating cycle that bends firmly toward greed — as Mandery chillingly notes, "Over 70 percent of Harvard seniors apply to investment banks or consulting firms. Once upon a time, the Ivies produced doctors and lawyers. Not anymore."

If you feel like maybe as a nation we're getting crueler, dumber and far less equitable, can you even imagine what we could be if we had a higher education system that wasn't perpetually glorifying its own self-defined "best and brightest"? 

Salon talked to Mandery recently about the myth of the "great school," the crisis of inequity and why he says elite schools are actively "harmful" to society.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Let's start with what we mean when we talk about the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which you demolish in this in this book. When we are looking at schools and ranking them and assessing them, what makes them "elite"? 

There's what we are defining as "elite" and "great," and what we should be. I think people mean different things when they talk about "good schools." Certainly, when it comes to primary and secondary education, they often mean "white." They sometimes mean "affluent." And they never mean "adding significant value educationally."

All of the data is about economic value added by attending particular colleges. I presume it would look the same for high schools, there's nothing about educational value added. I've spent three years looking at data on this stuff, and there's really no effort to measure whether one school is teaching any better than another.

"I'm pretty confident that Harvard and Yale aren't teaching any better, because they don't even really value teaching."

That's not the basis upon which people get hired and promoted. U.S. News certainly makes no effort whatsoever to look at educational value. But as a teacher, that's what education means. A great school is one that takes somebody wherever they start and elevates them as much as they possibly can.

There is a smaller and smaller pool of people who can get into these schools. But the idea is, that's your ticket. Especially for those of us who did not have parents who went to Ivy Leagues or who went to college at all, there is this desperate sense that this is going to be your way into another life. You start out by saying these elite schools don't let lots of poor people in, though they say they're doing it. Who is actually getting into these schools?

The data is overwhelming.

"What elite colleges are doing is admitting lots of rich kids, and lots of very rich kids."

The stories they tell are about promoting access — and they do let into a handful of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. 

One of the stories I tell that hasn't heretofore been told is that elite colleges are a massive insurance policy against downward mobility. Very, very few people end up with poor economic outcomes after attending one of these colleges. They're an exclusive promoter of opportunity to a particular type of super elite job, like in management, consulting, investment banking. These jobs have a really outsized influence on American policy.

I'm sure many of your readers will be sympathetic to my fears about the future of American democracy. I think what's changed most dramatically is mistrust of elites. It's a pathway that Trump very skillfully exploited, and it's a page he took from Adolf Hitler's playbook. There is a fairness to it, in that the elite is effectively inaccessible to most poor people, and most poor people of color. I don't know why if you grow up in rural Appalachia or wherever, you should have any confidence that the New York Times is factual and accurate.

And when a paper like the New York Times covers higher education, the vast majority of those stories are about Ivy League and specifically Harvard. That is its view of higher education in this country. It's Harvard.

They definitely cover Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Princeton more than they deserve to be covered on the basis of the percentage of students that are actually enrolled there. But it's not just the quantity of coverage; it is the quality of the coverage. I think this is where who belongs to the elite really shapes opinion. Have they been adequately critical of elite colleges? In some regards, yes. I got a piece in criticizing legacy admissions. The Times Editorial Board has now taken an official position against legacy admissions. I think the best piece I've written in connection with the release of my book was an op-ed in CNN, that Harvard can't simultaneously defend doing race based affirmative action while doing affirmative action for affluent whites. They do for about a third of their class. 

Even though we are talking about the Ivies, we are also talking about different kinds of educational elitism, whether it's an MIT or a Vassar. 

You know, meritocracy is a double-edged sword. If you say that a certain group of people are the smartest and most hardworking and most deserving, by implication you say that everyone who's not part of that group is less intelligent, less hardworking and less deserving. The elite defines itself. Harvard, Stanford, said to the world, "Look, we're not profit maximizers. But we're status aggrandiziers." They're in a race with one another to be the first to get to a trillion-dollar endowment, which they will, sometime in the 22nd century, depending how the stock market does and if the planet doesn't end. If you said that they're like Shell Oil, then they're just a corporation. But that's not the story they tell. They tell the story that they're admitting the best and the brightest. And that word "best" says "more good than you are." That's a very, very tough message to send. If you're born into the bottom income quintile of the United States, you have less than a .5% chance of ending up in a "plus" college.

And the that population who does is, as you point out, very unique. It's not even remotely a meritocracy. It's not like everybody can do that, just because they're smart. And then they get there and they face a lot of obstacles based on socioeconomic status and culture. 

Even for the handful of socioeconomically disadvantaged students who manage to get their way to these places, it's just the beginning of the battle for them. I tell the story in the book of this woman Brianne, who's at Northeastern law school now and obviously a success story. I told her, "Now you're going to meet rich people for the first time in your life, and you're not going to like it." She called me and was telling me how she had related some of her life experiences, which involved a lot of hardship, and how dismissive her classmates were.

And you can't say to your kids that it doesn't matter, because it does. When people say to me, "Where you went to school doesn't matter," I'm like, "You're kidding. You're lying. Of course it does." How do we change that conversation? Is it possible?

In the book I take on [Columbia University alumnus] Frank Bruni's book. I certainly agree with Bruni that I don't think where you go to school has anything to do with your actual value as a human being. I can sign on to that. But in terms of economic prospects, it makes a big difference. It's not deterministic, but it makes a big difference in terms of status. You understand how much credibility your degree buys you. Access makes a huge difference.

"Who says that SAT scores are really a measure of whether you deserve to be in college? They don't predict anything."

You ask, how do we change it? I think there are three things, at least, that have to happen. One is we have to start changing the narrative about meritocracy and what these schools actually are. I hope my book is the beginning of that. I really think it's important that people understand that the concept of merit doesn't exist; it doesn't come from God. It doesn't exist in the ether. People construct it, and the elite have constructed it to serve their interests. Who says that SAT scores are really a measure of whether you deserve to be in college? They don't predict anything. They're actually a terrible predictor of college performance. High school rank is a better predictor, but then it would legitimize the candidacy of every valedictorian in the United States. And they don't want to do that.

Then I think tax policy has to be used to demand that we both raise the floor and lower the ceiling. We're under investing in public education. We're over investing in privates. They collectively have more assets than Fort Knox. I think they could do a little bit more to help socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

And you point out the apartheid of the charter school system. 

New York City schools are basically the most segregated in the United States.

To me, a lot of this really does seem like Dunning Kruger in action. I look at some very high-profile people who went to fancy schools, let's say a Donald Trump or an Elon Musk. [Both are products of the University of Pennsylvania.] People who think that they are truly the smartest guys in the room. And some of that worldview was fostered in the schools that they went to.

I'm fascinated with elites. And that arrogance that you're talking about, always, always repulsed me. When I would come home to my parents and when I would tell them about college, I would refer to it as "the Harvard thing." It wasn't just that they would disagree with you. It was that they would make you feel like you were stupid for ever having said that in first place. It's a type of gaslighting.

I remember reading this piece by Dwight Garner in the New York Times. It was a defense of critics as gatekeepers. There's such hubris in it. The idea that somebody can believe that they know what quality is? Oh, my goodness, I just can't connect to it. I think I have no sense of entitlement whatsoever. And by the way, no middle class or poor kid does. They've all experienced impostor syndrome. Everybody else just sort of shirks because they think they own the room. 

We are looking literally right now on Twitter at someone who will not countenance any sort of challenge to authority, or the rightness of his positions, or the idea that he could learn something. You see that worldview fostered in these kinds of schools.

To counteract all of the psychological heuristic biases there are in favor of beliefs in the justice of the system, you would have to work very hard to teach people humility, and the relevance of moral luck and listening. They don't do any of those things that just make people existentially more secure in their position. And that leads to the type of dismissiveness and arrogance that you're talking about. 

You point out in the book that if we don't understand that this is what is happening in this the schools right now, we are missing a big part of the story. As you say, these are not where the next great physicians are coming from or the next great humanitarians are coming from. If we think that these schools are fostering a philosophy of service in the world, we're wrong. It's about competitiveness, it's about class and it's about how to get out and get your quote, unquote, return on your investment, which means one thing. And that's your salary.

I'm very interested in the interrelationship between elite colleges and suburbs. I think what we've created in America is a likelihood for a certain type of affluent kid, that they never encounter any disadvantage or cognitive dissonance in their life, they just feel completely confident about their status in the world. And their value systems are skewed. American taxpayers give elite colleges about $20 billion a year in tax breaks. I'd feel a little differently about it if they made a bunch of rich white kids into teachers and do-gooders. They don't do any of that. About 2% of Harvard graduates go into education, most of those Teach for America, which is a two-year commitment. By contrast, where I teach about three-quarters of our students go into public service. And Harvard outspends John Jay, by about ten to one per student.

For someone who is thinking about picking up this book, maybe somebody like me, a parent who has college-aged kids, what is the most important thing that you want them to take away?

It's in some sense an argument to elites, which is why I have some optimism about this. I do think people who go to college are receptive to data. Let's say maybe you'll disagree with my conclusion that elite colleges are on balance harmful to society, but I think my case is irrefutable. I can't imagine anybody reading my book and not thinking that these colleges have to do substantially more than they're doing to create opportunity, and stop giving them money until they start doing their bit.

I always say to people, I'm just playing a different game that you're playing. I'm not trying to maximize my child's status. I'm trying to turn her into a good human being who has some commitment to making the world a better place. I just want her to be happy. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Education Evan Mandery Higher Education Interview Ivy League Poison Ivy