‘Break up the Ivy League cartel’

One encouraging thing is the growing bipartisan sentiment for breaking up giant corporations such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Walmart.

Matt Stoller’s BIG Substack blog is good source of information on business monopoly and the anti-monopoly movement. 

A guest poster, Sam Haselby, pointed out the other that the Ivy League universities are very like monopoly businesses. 

They have positioned themselves the gatekeepers to the affluent life.  Like the big retail chains and tech companies, they are able to thrive because of their financial strength, while their smaller competitors, with smaller margins of survival, go under.

Here are some highlights of his post:

Since the pandemic began, 650,000 jobs have disappeared in American academic institutions. More than 75% of college faculty in the U.S. are contingent workers or non tenure-track.

Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. schools rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions.

The common joke, that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm, is not so far off.


In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five percent. In 1970, it was twenty percent. This year, for the class of 2025, it was 3.4 percent.

On the surface, a far more selective Ivy League seems to support the notion of meritocracy as something approximating what Jefferson characterized as the purpose of (unrealized plans for) free public schooling in 18th century Virginia: “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”

In practice though American meritocracy has become skewed to elite reproduction.

The economist Raj Chetty has found that nearly 40 of the country’s elite colleges and universities, including five in the Ivy League, accept more students from families in the top 1% of income earners than from the bottom 60%.

Computer scientist Alison Morgan recently released a study examining 7,218 professors in PhD granting departments in the United States across the arts and sciences.  She found that the faculty come from families almost 34% richer than average and are twenty-five times more likely than average to have a parent with a PhD.  Faculty at prestigious universities are fifty times more likely than average person to have a parent with a PhD.

American meritocracy has become a complex, inefficient, and rigged system conferring a series of “merits” on ambitious children of highly educated and prosperous families.

In the mid 20th century, when Harvard accepted 80% of its applicants, its graduates voted Republican. Today Ivy league acceptance rates are in the single digits and its graduates, as well as 70% of people with graduate degrees, vote Democratic.

This is why Thomas Piketty refers to the U.S.’s (as well as the UK and France’s) “Brahmin left.”


On the one hand, we hear grandiose world-historical claims from meritocrats, while the institutions struggle to conduct themselves as decent neighbors and good citizens.

Two Yale professors gained notoriety for ominous exegeses about how Russians and Nazis have taken over the Republican party (never mind, apparently, that Russians and Nazis were historic enemies).  Meanwhile, Yale declines to make its dorms available to New Haven city workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic (the university was soon forced to reverse its decision).

Cornell University’s English department changes its name (adding an “s” to “literatures”) and compares their act to the 20th century decolonization of Africa. The same week, Ithaca College, two miles down the road, lays off 130 faculty members.  Cornell gives no sign of noticing.

Columbia University announces it has received a $5 million grant for two law school professors to study democracy.  The same week, the university tells its striking graduate students, who have exercised their legal rights to form a union, that the university refuses to recognize their right to strike, much less their union, and will confiscate their wages.

Rep. Pramila Jayapil and Senator Bernie Sanders have introduced legislation to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities for families with incomes of under $125,000 a year.

If it is passed, Haselby hopes it will lead to a resurgence in public higher education, just like the establishment land grant colleges after the Civil War and the GI Bill of Rights after World War Two.

Nobody is proposing to break up Harvard and Yale the way they are proposing to break up Amazon, Facebook and Google.  But there are proposals to change their tax-exempt status.  Gifts to their endowments are tax-deductible and income from their endowments, because they are officially non-profit, is not taxed.

Haselby noted that President Trump included a modest endowment tax in his 2017 tax bill, and some Massachusetts state legislators want to tax Harvard’s endowment.

There are other big problems with higher education today.  One is the entrenched power and high income of administrators, which come at the expense of the faculty and wage-earning support workers.

The other is the requirement of a college degree for jobs where it is irrelevant.  There are lots of ways to acquire knowledge and skills, including job-related skills, and classroom instruction is only one of them.  There ought to be other ways to certify competency besides the requirement of a college degree.


The Ivy League v. Democracy by Sam Haselby for BIG by Matt Stoller.  Haselby’s entire article is well worth reading, and Stoller’s Substack blog is well worth following.

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