top of page

Book Review:
Author contends income disparity
plays key role in education outcomes

The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite

Daniel Markovits, 2019

I've been reading Daniel Markovits' book, The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. The Meritocracy Trap has already received a mean-spirited review in The New Yorker by a reviewer who disliked (to put it mildly) Markovits' indictment of elite colleges and universities for their role in creating a new caste system. Nevertheless, Markovits has written a powerful important book with tons of data regarding the relationship between income inequality and increasing differences in educational outcomes between poor and non-poor students. Anyone who wants to take on Markovits with a rational argument has to address the information he provides in pp.119-139, a devastating description of how economic advantages translate into educational experiences and outcomes. Some quotes from these pages: 


Children born to rich parents begin collecting their meritocratic inheritances from the moment of conception." (p. 119)  

"Elite parents do not let up advantaging their babies when they arrive. To the contrary, rich parents exploit the extravagant groundwork that they have laid by making exceptional direct investments in their children from the moment of birth.  These investments continue and compound through early childhood ..." (p.119)

"... all parents have begun to invest more time in educating their children, but college-educated parents ... have increased their investments more rapidly, indeed, twice as rapidly, according to one study." (p.120)

"... a three-year old child born to professionals will have heard nearly twenty million more words than a three-year old born to parents who hold non- professional jobs and over 30 million more words than a three-year old born to a mother on welfare." (p.121) 

"Three-year-olds from households whose annual incomes exceed $100,000 attend preschool at twice the rate of three-year-olds from households whose annual incomes fall below $60,000. (p. 122)  Moreover, ordinary and elite preschools are almost unrecognizably different. ... an elite preschool ... may have a fully staffed and stocked library, and separate art, music, foreign language, science and social studies departments, all staffed by teachers and even assistant teachers who hold bachelors and even Masters degrees ..." (p.122)

"Early education pays immense dividends: dollar for dollar, the preschool years represent the most consequential investments in a person's human capital." (p. 122) 

"The upshot of the vastly unequal investments in the human capital of young children by the rich and the rest is equally clear; elite children enter school proper with tremendous emotional and economic advantages already in place. By the time they are five, children from the top tenth of American households by socioeconomic status outstrip children from the bottom half by roughly 25, 37 and 39 months of schooling on the PISA tests of mathematics, reading and science skills ..." (p. 123) 

"Elite kindergartners enter formal schooling with an immense advantage over poor and middle-class peers already locked in. (p.124) Moreover, as children grow older, elite parents increasingly supplement their extraordinary, personal investments in their children with equally extraordinary investments delivered by others, through enrichment classes and especially schools." (p. 124)

"... fully a quarter of children whose parents make over $200,000 a year attend private schools; ... the rate is only about one in twenty for children whose parents make less than $50,000. ... These elite schools spend spectacular sums on teaching their students, (with) small student ratios -- 7:1 compared to 16:1 in public schools..." (p. 123)


" the richest districts and (public) schools, PTAs, local school foundations, and school booster clubs are financing vehicles .. These sums (from private sources) have become commonplace rather than exceptional among wealthy public schools. ... In New York City, ... public schools that raise more than $1 million annually are known as 'public privates.'" (p. 127) 

"All in all, a poor child in a poor district in a poor state might receive about $8,000 worth of schooling per year, a middle-class child in a middle-income district might receive $12,000, a middle-class child in a rich district might receive $18,000, a rich child in a rich state might receive $27,000, and a very rich child in an elite private school might receive $$75,000 worth of education per year." (p. 128) 

"The American elite's extraordinary investment in its school age children is not limited to formal schooling ... Many enrichment expenditures focus directly on the core academic subjects taught at school: science and math camps, coding and robotics clubs ... Rich parents also pay for academic tutoring and test preparation programs ... (p.128) Other forms of enrichment- in the arts or in athletics, complement ... the school curriculum. (p. 129) .. the gap between even these extracurricular investments between elite and ordinary children has again been growing steadily over the past few decades and is now enormous." (p.129)

"... rich parents spend ever greater sums  on training their children, so that no facet of consumption inequality is increasing more rapidly than expenditures on education." (p.130)

"Educational inequality has .. increased markedly alongside rising income inequality. The gap between the test scores of high and low income students has grown by between 40 and 50 percent over the past twenty five years, so that by the eighth grade, students from rich families are four grade levels ahead of of those from poor ones." (p.131) 

"The achievement gap between rich and poor students ( in the U.S.) today exceeds the present day white/ black achievement gap ... and even exceeds the white/black gap that racially segregated schools produced at mid- century." (p.131) 

"Today, the rich outperform the middle class by more than the middle class outperforms the poor-  indeed, by significantly more; ... 25% greater than the gap between the middle class and the poor." (p.132) 

".. each additional increment in parents' income substantially increases the chances that a child will attend college, all the way up the income distribution. The effect of parental income on the odds of graduating rather than just attending college is greater still." (p.134) 

"The rich enjoy a greater relative advantage over the rest in attending and graduating from selective colleges or universities and an especially great advantage at the most highly competitive and elite schools. (p. 135)  From the high school class of 2004 ... about 15% of high income students but only 5 percent of middle - and 2 percent of low-income students - enrolled in highly selective colleges." (p.135)

"Small wonder then that college student populations skew spectacularly toward wealth. About 37 percent  of all college students now come from households in the top quarter of the income distribution, compared to about 25% from each of the middle two quarters and 13% from the bottom quarter. The skew toward wealth within college student bodies has, once again, increased over time ... (p.135) These inequalities are greatest at elite colleges ... At the roughly 150 most competitive and selective -- and therefore most elite -- colleges, students from households in the top quarter of the income distribution outweigh students from households in the bottom quarter by a factor of fourteen to one ...and at the 91 most competitive colleges, the top outweigh the bottom by 24-1 ... 72% of students at elite colleges come from the top quarter and only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter." (136)  

"More distressingly still, across the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, Duke, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half." (p. 137)  

Markovits' book is a merciless 'take no prisoners' account of how income inequality has developed into a caste system organized around educational advantages and achievement. The Meritocracy Trap has lengthy discussions of the long hours worked by most adults with large incomes. Well-off parents are determined to lock in their economic advantages and pass them on to their children and grandchildren; and  they are succeeding, not only through exceptional investments in their children's education but also by providing a rationale for their advantages: we're the best and the brightest as indicated by educational achievement, and we work harder than everyone else. A hundred years ago, a life of leisure was an indicator of wealth and privilege. Today, leisure has become an indicator of low or middle class incomes, and of reduced value in the meritocracy, according to Markovits.   


If anyone finds or already has a cogent rebuttal to Markovits' main arguments as outlined above, please let me know.  The New Yorker review was critical and borderline insulting. The reviewer painted Markovits as playing to nativist (read Trump supporters) resentments of universities, elite colleges and intellectuals. It was an ad hominem attempt to discredit the author, without acknowledging the strengths of his argument regarding meritocracy.  Other critics may do better; if they do, I'd like to read what they have to say.     

-- Dee Wilson

bottom of page