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Why do so many Americans crave what we consider to be ‘elite’ status?

We should figure it out — especially since higher education is already difficult to obtain for too many in this country who can barely manage tuition at a community college, much less any sleek rowing photos or bribes.

Marquette U podium
That which drives so many of us to try to obtain what we consider elite is something we should figure out.
REUTERS/Darren Hauck

As the college cheating scandal continues to anger much of a nation, news that one of the involved actresses is unwilling to plead guilty to charges of wrongdoing and another accepts guilt while fearing prison makes me (and I would guess a whole lot of other people) think there is much more involved beyond tremendously privileged people wanting and expecting even more privilege. I could be wrong, but I’m thinking that the enormous matter of what so many of us consider to be “elite,” and why so many of us value such status so very much, is yet to be more fully discussed. Including why many of us in far less gilded circumstances will do almost anything within our greatest means to achieve elite ranking. Or buy it.

This scandal has made me think about what a beloved professor told me many years ago when I told him I was transferring from Milwaukee’s Marquette University to the University of Minnesota. He knew I was from what was then called a “prosperous working class” family, one with enough income to not qualify for most of the non-loan financial aid that existed at the time but not enough to allow me to go to a school like Marquette without living at home and working an exhausting but fairly lucrative job every weekend and summer. Along with passing on most of the interesting, often very expensive things that mark life at a renowned private university. He also knew that I had chosen to make those sacrifices for nearly two years in order to attempt to obtain the sort of “elite” education that was either not possible for, or desired by, most of the people in much of the United States. Then and now.

‘A world few of your social class will enter’

I can still feel my professor jab my hand from across the table after I broke the news. And then he said, in the gravest voice I’d ever heard him use: “I mostly understand why you are doing this, even though I think you might be making a mistake. Make sure you know that you might be leaving a place that could have afforded you easier admission to a world few of your social class will enter.” He went on to say he would talk to a few of his fellow professors who had taken their doctorates at Minnesota to have them give me transition counsel.

As it was, I made the transfer and got what I considered to be a pretty good education in Minneapolis. I had fewer small classes than I did at Marquette and made far fewer friends, since many of the people I talked to in class were living the life I had lived at Marquette, that of go to school and run to the library for a bit of study before going home. But I didn’t have to work weekends anymore as I got a nice job on-campus with a group of economists, a job I firmly believe helped me develop skills and even connections that I might have gotten through Marquette’s involved alumni chapters and networks.

I took classes that were more available at large universities (e.g., reading the Icelandic sagas, a course which helped me when I wrote my Iceland-oriented novel years later). The lack of personal attention in class meant any success or failure I encountered was on me. All on me. At first, I was scared out of my mind and often felt odd (and sometimes exotic) being a Catholic among so many Lutherans of Scandinavian descent who scarcely asked questions in class. But it mostly worked.

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‘Not elite enough’

And when I went to Washington years later, the person who hired me for my political appointee position at the U.S. Department of Education said “I like it that you went to Marquette but I also like it that you graduated from Minnesota. I always think people, especially in this town, wrongly think of public universities as not elite enough.”

photo of article author
Mary Stanik
When I got the job the very next day, I felt very elite. To be sure, a place like Washington, D.C., was full of people who had gone to the sorts of private schools the wealthy and somewhat wealthy consider necessary to a life worth living. But any sense of inferiority I may have felt among my  Education Department colleagues had little to do with the fact that I had graduated from a public university. The gentle teasing I received upon occasion from my East Coast co-workers came from being from the “honest, simple” part of the country that imparted touches of a Canadian-like accent (so they felt) over my native Great Lakes twang. But that’s for another discussion.

Still, that which drives so many of us to try to obtain what we consider elite is something we should figure out. Especially since higher education of any sort is already difficult to obtain for too many in this country who can barely manage tuition at a community college, much less any sleek rowing photos or bribes.

Far too many.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”

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