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31 Aug, 2019 20:38

Harvard is wealthier than half the world’s countries… because someone has to prop up the status quo

Harvard is wealthier than half the world’s countries… because someone has to prop up the status quo

Harvard University has more money in its endowment than 109 countries have wealth, a recent report said, and it's not the only school with more cash than most nations. For the rich, maintaining the status quo doesn't come cheap.

"America's public schooling system may be in trouble, but its top universities are anything but," said a story by Stacker,  which compared the multibillion endowments of 50 American colleges to the "total wealth" of world nations as estimated by Credit Suisse. The list saw five universities – including Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Texas System – beat over half of world's 195 economies. Topping the list with its massive $38.3 billion endowment came Harvard.

Perhaps more than even the other Ivy League colleges, Harvard sells more than just a degree. A Harvard education provides entrée into exclusive circles populated by the very wealthy and very influential, and the school puts a lot of effort into nurturing this reputation. The quality of a Harvard education has somewhat dipped over the past decade, now occupying the sixth spot according to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, but the same firm has invariably ranked the institution's reputation as pristine, scoring a perfect 100 on both research and teaching.

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While teachers across the country have been staging walkouts over low wages and healthcare costs, college tuition costs have spiked as Wall Street got in on packaging student loan debts as it once packaged mortgage debts. Since 'SLABS' (student loan asset backed securities) were introduced, the total amount of student debt held by American students has doubled.

Ivy league schools have remained safe from credential inflation because alumni who occupy the positions of power have agreed that the degrees must remain valuable, a recession-proof asset for wealthy people understandably skittish in an uncertain economy. Just as modern art's value rests on the auction houses that sell it for millions of dollars, Ivy League degrees have value because of the sheer financial might backing the institutions that bestow them.

The US is often ranked among the most unequal countries in the world, with just three people owning as much wealth as the poorest half of the population. It is also more unequal now than at almost any time since its founding, yet there are no Yellow Vest-style protests raging through the streets, and haven't been since Occupy Wall Street. Why?

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Data from the International Social Survey Programme show that as a country's economy becomes less equal, its people perceive it as more of a meritocracy – the kind of place where, if you study hard and show up on time, you, too, can become a Master of the Universe. The kind of place where even a kid who grew up on the streets can go to Harvard. Doling out conspicuous scholarships helps Harvard perpetuate this illusion.

One of the most powerful and enduring founding myths of the US is that of the land of opportunity, where anyone with enough grit and tenacity can 'make it'. This may once have been the case.

But when these schools have war chests larger than most countries, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the system does not work for everyone. With homeless populations in many cities reaching record highs, even as colleges in those cities greedily snatch up more real estate, the inequality has never been so stark.

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Yet even as no one looks at a homeless person living in a Los Angeles tent city and imagines that as their future, there's an entire profession devoted to convincing gullible high-schoolers that if they just pick the right college, the world is their oyster. A former Harvard admissions consultant attempted to deflate that myth a few years ago in an anonymous article titled 'Ivy League Admissions Are a Sham: Confessions of a Harvard Gatekeeper'. It claimed that the rare candidates from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who showed up on his desk always had some disqualifying factor that allowed them to be passed over for their wealthy peers groomed for universe-mastery from birth.

Whether or not this biter of the hand that fed them (they graduated from Harvard themselves) is exaggerating, it is no coincidence that most Ivy League alumni graduate with a remarkably uniform view toward the system they now have the power to change – if only they wanted to. But why rock the boat? That system worked well for them.

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'Philanthropy' is an established tradition among the wealthy, many of whom feel it is important to be seen as 'giving back'. Being 'seen' is the operative word here – charity doesn't matter if no one sees you doing it. Charity balls form the backbone of their social lives, family foundations become the final resting place of their wealth (old-money families like the Rothschilds and Rockefellers rarely show up on 'world's richest' lists because they are wise enough to hide their assets), and museum wings are named after wealthy benefactors so the poor know their duty is to be grateful, not resentful.

At least theoretically, everybody wins: the wealthy avoid taxes and the working class can cling to the dream that if their kids work hard, someday they might get into Harvard and join the ranks of their oppressors. Mom & Dad shelve the pitchforks for another day, and the wealthy breathe a little easier.

Why wouldn't a wealthy person give back to an institution that created such a system? Doling out a handful of scholarships to the most promising members of the working class is a small price to pay for keeping one's position atop an increasingly unequal society. The status quo doesn't maintain itself. That's Harvard's job.

Helen Buyniski

Helen Buyniski is an American journalist and political commentator.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.