Meet one of wealthy colleges’ biggest critics

Evan Mandery has been one of wealthy colleges’ most vocal critics for years.

In 2014, he called for the end of legacy admissions that give a leg up to children of alumni. He’s repeated that call over the years in publications ranging from The Harvard Crimson student newspaper to The New York Daily News. And he’s expanded his arguments against Ivy League and other top-tier institutions to include criticisms such as that they only help a very low number of students climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Mandery’s criticisms are notable in part because he’s an alumnus of Harvard University who also has intimate knowledge of how non-elite colleges operate. Today, he’s a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is part of the City University of New York system.

This fall, Mandery published a book, “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us,” compiling his criticisms and making the case that upper-tier college admissions drive a segregated higher education system in the U.S. He doesn’t spare parents or faculty members from scrutiny, either.

Top colleges are heavily populated by liberals, Mandery writes. Yet they favor the White and wealthy, and they work to protect the status quo.

“Over the pages that follow you’ll meet many social scientists who have carefully chronicled and explained the mechanisms that fuel inequity in American education,” Mandery writes. “Most of them work at these schools. Yet almost none of them have called out their colleges as bad actors.”

He recently answered questions about his arguments, the book and how it’s been received. Higher Ed Dive is publishing that conversation in two parts. This is the first.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HIGHER ED DIVE: What prompted you to write the book?

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Evan Mandery


EVAN MANDERY: The book is a product of my life experience. My parents both went to CUNY, and my dad was a high school principal. He actually still works at the same school where he was principal.

And I went to Harvard College and Law School, and I’ve been teaching at CUNY for 23 years. I would say I spent some part of my whole life thinking about what separates the outcomes of people rich and poor — and people who end up at elite colleges and people who don’t.

Sometimes, when elite colleges’ behavior comes up among higher ed professionals who don’t work at these institutions, the conversation gets shut down. Someone says the Ivy-pluses are essentially a different sector from most colleges.

So why should those at other colleges care about this tier of institutions?

I understand the pushback. As a percentage of college graduates, Ivy-plus types represent a small fraction, and certainly a very small fraction of Americans in general.

But — and I quote John Friedman of the Chetty-Friedman team in the book, and it’s what I think — so many of the most influential policymaking positions are filled by Ivy League types. So the Ivy-plus colleges — really a small share of the Ivy-plus colleges — are the exclusive promoters of access to a certain type of elite job like working at an investment bank or a management consulting firm like Goldman Sachs or McKinsey. Basically the Supreme Court and all of the clerks are staffed by people who went to a handful of the most elite law schools.

So from a policymaking standpoint, I think it’s correct to focus on these colleges. And I think one of the pathways that [former President Donald] Trump most expertly exploited on his pathway to the presidency is a page he took out of Adolph Hitler’s playbook: fomenting antipathy for elites. For so many people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, access to the elite is basically an impossibility. And it’s something that colleges need to correct.

But I certainly agree that focusing on elite colleges is only part of the problem. We need to lower the ceiling so there is greater access at the top, and also raise the floor so we start to reinvest in public colleges.

Still, aren’t many of these elite colleges fulfilling their original missions? In other words, weren’t many of them basically designed to educate the rich and prepare graduates for the upper strata of society?

How they were designed can’t be an ethical defense of what they do now. They were also racist in their construction and antisemitic in their construction, so the fact that Harvard was a finishing school for Boston Brahmins is of no ethical significance.

They are the collective beneficiaries of approximately $20 billion per year in tax breaks. I think the American taxpayer has a right to expect that the rich nonprofits which get the lion’s share of additional tax resources do good.

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