Sunday, June 8, 2014

Economic Insecurity: A Hidden Reason Why Applications are Flooding Elite Colleges?

By: Maple Seawright

Widener Library, Harvard; courtesy of Atlantic Saints

Does the Economy Play a Crucial Role in the Record Breaking Applications to Top Colleges?

Despite the drop in college enrollment, New York Times reports that there is a puzzlingly increase in applications to elite colleges that is causing the admissions process to be "more cutthroat and anxiety-inducing than ever." Sources in the article speculate that the rise in applications, which procures the low admissions rate, can be linked to ambitious students sending more applications such as Issac Madrid profiled in the article who spent $800 in applications to apply to 11 colleges. Others speculate that the electronic age ameliorates the application process and encourages more students to apply to elite colleges, other sources point to students applying to colleges beyond traditional regional borders due to " so much information online now, so every school seems local" and some attribute this predicament to "colleges’ increasingly aggressive outreach to prospective students, with mailings, emails and advertising". Critics are dismayed at what appears to be the collective shallow aspirations for prestige and a fancy degree instead of simply appreciating a solid education. 

However is the disproportionate amount of applications to top colleges just vanity or does it reveal deeper implications about economic trends and underlying ideologies that molds society? Perhaps students are unconsciously reacting to broader structural issues. I speculate that economic instability, insecurity and inequality subtly compels ambitious high school students to compete for refuge in top colleges. These elite institutions have a seemingly stable concentration of resources and prestige that can assist students in confronting these complex economic issues. Interacting structural and social issues are generating a overwhelming demand for a prestigious degree, which confers them disproportionate amount of power in relation to colleges that are less esteemed. Consequently these colleges will receive the disproportionate amount of applications.
Union membership rate is at 11.3 percent
Neoliberal hyper individualism has become the underlying ideology that fuels and legitimatizes the post Fordist/ post Keyensian economy and has steeped into our identities, social relations and interaction with institutions. The sentiment that flows from this ideology focuses on internalizing blame for a paltry economic status while absolving more powerful forces of guilt or responsibility. Neoliberalism is permeating globally, even in countries mired in poverty. The editorial, Zigzag capitalism, describes the outlook of development institutions in impoverished regions who increasing "depict social problems as issues of individual responsibility," and encourages "young people to blame themselves for their situation". Ambitious yet disadvantaged youth in the global south are turning to entrepreneurship while some segments of youth in the U.S. are coping by dedicating themselves to the individual pursuit of legitimatizing oneself through elite and prestigious education instead of political action such as through a union. Since unions are no longer a strong advocate and union membership is steadily declining, a degree from a top college becomes your new silent yet powerful advocate for bargaining for individual employee rights. Now job security and high wages isn't dependent on union participation, but your willingness to travel the gilded avenue to build your individual brand for access to these elusive secure positions. While low wages workers are perceived and denigrated as undeserving for union bargaining and living wages, students are attempting to circumvent this obstacle by using prestige as an advocate and indisputable evidence of deservingness.

43 percent of the working age population has full time jobs
Precarious economic conditions have made extensive job training too burdensome of a liability. Petter Cappellli revealed in his book, A Training Gap, not a Skills Gap, that "1979, young workers received an average of two and a half weeks of training per year. By 1991, only 17% of young employees reported getting any training during the previous year, and by last year, only 21% said they received training during the previous five years. Even training departments have been eliminated in response to the Great Recession".  Recently hired employees are expected to expertly divulge in complex and specialized work duties with minimal to no training. Employees are inadvertently demanding more investment from colleges. Eight Ivy League schools have less than 1 percent of U.S. college students but almost 17 percent of all endowment money. The top 3 percent of schools ranked by endowment size have more than half the funds. Just by comparing the endowments alone of top colleges versus less esteemed colleges, the obvious disparity in capacity of colleges to meet this challenge is exposed. The endowments also indicate the relative unequal budgets colleges have for student investment and prestige building. The inequality of donations, endowments even media attention, which helps to influence the allocation of donations, directly correlates to the stratification of resources and tools for professional development to meet the ever changing, unpredictable market demands. Most top colleges were able to weather the Great Recession, thus leaving their students less vulnerable to job market.

The inequality in college wealth and resources also correlates the inequality in social networks. The powerful alumni that are more keen to providing desirable internships to students who need solid experience, disproportionately hold degrees from top universities. Even the executives in secure positions that are in stable industries with high profits and ruthless companies that are too big to fail disproportionately have degrees from top universities

The economy is replacing more middle income jobs with undervalued low skill and low wages jobs. In the most influential cities where highly profitable industries and companies are headquartered as command centers, labor is increasingly organized to produce stratification in employee rights and benefits. As David Harvey explains in The Condition for Postmodernity, "The core - a steadily shrinking group according to accounts emanating from both sides of the Atlantic - is made up of employees with full time, permanent status and is central to the long term future of the organization. Enjoying greater security, good promotion and reskilling prospects and relatively generous pension insurance and other fringe benefits rights" while one group of periphery workers is made up of expendable full time, clerical and middle skill employees and the other group of periphery workers are "part timers, causals, fixed term contract staff, temporaries, sub-contractors and public subsidy trainees, with even less job security than the first periphery group." As the availability of full time jobs in the core contracts, there is an unconscious understanding that the stakes are high and education can either place you in the secure core or the degraded periphery.

53 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed
High unemployment and underemployment rate has intensified the necessity for students to have their resumes standout among the hordes of desperate competition. In the most extreme and publicized cases there were 23,000 applications sent to get one of 600 jobs at Walmart in Washington, D.C. while in Maryland an ice cream packer company received 400 applications for 16 jobs. Markers of academic prestige on a resume is just on powerful tool for students hoping to transcend the label as just another ordinary applicant. Top universities often perceived as being elite incubators of innovation and research, so students want to be connected to this perception.

Many fear being a part of the marginalized masses that have been permanently cut off from the core and in gloomier cases even the periphery and not even given the chance to compete in the restructuring, contracting, deindustrialized economy. Harvey explains, "the new labour market conditions have for the most part re-emphasized the vulnerability of disadvantaged groups." High loan amounts has added the pressure to secure a well paying job and have emphasized the importance of education and skill acquirement.

Many students are choosing different methods for coping with contemporary struggles. Some are focused on majoring in the hard sciences and math, while others are focusing on filling their resumes with meaningful leadership activities and others are building their social networks. However getting a degree from a top college is another method to have privileged access to the job market.

Harvey, David (1991). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Capital, pp 150, 152.
Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier.
Editorial (2013). Zigzag capitalism: Youth entrepreneurship in the contemporary global South. Elsevier.

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