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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February, 2005, 14:58 GMT
Letter: America's new class division

By Tim Egan
New York Times correspondent

For many young Americans, getting a degree is seen as the only passport to success.

With a shortage of places, parents are adopting ever more desperate measures to get their kids into a top university. Timothy Egan suggests that a new class division is emerging in America - between the graduates and the fast food workers.

Yale university
Two-thirds of all high school seniors now go to university
Some time in the next two months, my daughter will take the long walk down our driveway to the mailbox and find inside something that may change her life.

She has spent nearly half of her childhood pouring her heart - and her intellectual energy - into getting into a certain college.

It's a quest that has nearly consumed her. Now comes the day of reckoning. If it is a slim envelope, she may not even want to open it.

That's the sure sign of a rejection letter.

Acceptance letter

Slim means tears, go away, you're nobody.

If it is a fat envelope, she will probably float back to the house on a carpet of joy.

Fat means you're in, you're one of the chosen few - your life is set.

This ritual will be repeated across the United States.

I have watched it happen to neighbours. The driveway became a trail of tears in one case, a spontaneous party in the other.

I did not raise my daughter to believe that life begins with admission to one of America's elite universities - at least, I don't think I did.

She went to city public schools, we never hired a tutor, and there was not a lot of rah-rah around the dinner table for some distant and ancient Ivy League school.

We live in the Pacific Northwest, in America's far corner.

Here, one of the guiding principles is that we left behind, in another time zone, old society pretence about class and privilege.

We take seriously our belief in meritocracy.

Have and have-nots

But something has changed - something has changed rather dramatically - over the last generation.

More than ever, university has become the great gatekeeper between the haves and the have-nots.

There was a time when people would argue whether a university degree was a pre-requisite for a decent life. But no-one disputes this now.

It is not enough to be the smartest kid in class. Virtually every elite university has a legacy system - sometimes termed Affirmative Action for White Guys.
The gap - in earnings, social standing, and comfort - between Americans with a university degree and those who never went beyond their senior year of high school has nearly doubled over the last 25 years.

Go to college and get a degree, and you will likely earn 45% more than someone who did not, according to the federal government.

One broad survey found that nearly 60% of people who 10 years ago chose not to go to university now work as labourers or in the service industry - also known as "would you like fries with that burger?"

Only 1% of university graduates ended up in such jobs.

There are, of course, still the anecdotal stories. We all know that Bill Gates, the world's richest man - and a native of my home town in Seattle - is a Harvard dropout.

And a boy who can defy gravity while dunking a basketball, or throw a baseball at 90 miles an hour before his 17th birthday, may see more money before his 21st birthday than most people will see in a lifetime.

Margins

But for everyone else, a life without university is a life at the margins of the middle class - at best.

And it was not always so. Twenty years ago, only half of all American high school seniors went to university.

The other half had good options, not dead-end jobs.

When I was 18, many of the kids in my graduating class at the Jesuit high school I attended decided to go to work instead of university.

Nobody was horror-struck either. In many cases, their parents actually encouraged them to take the steady job over the uncertainty of more education.

There was a factory at the edge of town, and it was just as good, if not better, than college.

Michigan students
A good university costs about $40,000 per year
A kid just out of high school could make big money smelting aluminium on the floor of that factory - in a trade union job with all the benefits.

People bought new cars, summer homes, and raised a family on one salary. They were set for life.

Now that factory is gone, fading away with the rest of the big-muscle industrial jobs.

The US has lost 30% of all manufacturing jobs from a generation ago. Never in modern times have there been so few well-paid, semi-skilled places to work in our country.

So now two-thirds of all high school seniors go to university.

Competition

They pore over the magazine ratings of the top 500 schools the way my friends and I used to look at Playboy.

They hire writing coaches to help with that all important essay that is supposed to reveal creativity and originality. And they buy thick how-to guides, memorising the fine print and all the charts.

The competition is so brutal, in part, because the good colleges have not added places - while population has swelled.

In my state of Washington, the population has doubled since I left high school. But there are still only a few thousand freshman places available at the state's premier public university.

Dad, I'll never get into Stanford if I don't keep up
Tim Egan's daughter
Over the last 20 years, California - America's largest state - has built more than a dozen new prisons, but they have not added a single new university.

Across the US, the next few years will see a record amount of young people trying to get into college, as the children of the baby boom generation come of age.

And because the cost of college has risen well past the rate of inflation, this midlife hit is going to drain many a middle aged bank account.

The good schools all cost around $40,000 a year.

Now imagine what it's like trying to get into one of the Ivy League schools, or Stanford on the West Coast, the so-called medallion schools.

A generation ago, Harvard University accepted 20% of its applicants.

That figure has been cut in half, so now about 90% of all the students who apply to Harvard do not get in.

And these rejected kids are not slouches. These rejected kids would have been the valedictorians, the class presidents, of 25 years ago.

Legacy

Among my daughter's class, for example, perfect grades are cheap.

Also, because everyone is expected to show some extraordinary community service, some kids spend their summers in South America, working to save the rain forest, or up in the Alaskan bush, teaching natives how to download the world through a palm pilot.

You've got to invent something - build a house for the poor, go to a summer camp built around calculus and Latin.

Simply helping out at the old nursing home, or working to clean up a dishevelled neighbourhood is not enough.

Children at a school in Texas
Children aiming for a top university have little time for childhood
Still, it is also not enough to be the smartest kid in class. Virtually every elite college has a legacy system.

This is the tradition by which people with average grades - but crucially with money and family ties to the school - are accepted ahead of the smart kids with no connections.

George Bush, the famous C student, was a legacy at Yale, though he says now that he opposes the legacy system.

Usually, up to 15% of all admissions in the medallion schools are legacies. And who said America doesn't have an encrusted aristocracy?

The competition, the demands of parents, and the demographic squeeze have combined to push pressure downward, to the playpen, and even to the cradle.

There is a palpable fear among kids yet to reach their 10th birthday, that the wrong curriculum will doom them to some no-name university and a second-class life.

Childhood pressures

What happened to childhood? For years, my daughter has been bringing home a backpack that would break a Himalayan Sherpa, and fretting over four hours of homework a night.

She has this giant day planner. Actually, a month planner, plotting virtually every hour in the coming days. I have tried to remind her to pencil in a few moments to be a kid.

"Dad," she responds. "I'll never get into Stanford if I don't keep up."

I suppose I'm lucky. In other families, the pressure has started to show in ways that we all dread.

One 14-year-old girl, otherwise flawless to the untrained eye, drank so much gin one night she was rushed to the hospital, and fell into a brief coma.

Her blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit of defined intoxication. Eating disorders are not uncommon.

Other kids simply rebel, becoming Goths who dress in black and take far too much interest in music that celebrates suicide.

I look at all this and I wonder: Is it really worth it? Has society changed so much, so quickly, that getting into the right college is truly life-determining?

At the same time, I have started to peek into the mailbox with the sense of dread and anticipation that my daughter feels.

In just a few days, we will hear her fate. I worry about the disappointment, the crush of failure she may feel. I've already rehearsed my lines, in the event of rejection.

You have great friends honey, a family that loves you, your grades are terrific. You're funny, smart, you have a big, generous heart. Your future is unlimited.

But none of that will matter, I'm afraid, if it's a slim envelope in the mailbox.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.



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