“In HS I studied 24/7, never did anything fun, was in a million clubs, and took all APs,” she captions the beginning of her video. The camera transitions to a friend flipping off the camera. “This mf had beef w every teacher and dropped his only club and had fun. We both ended up at the same college. Don’t be me. Go have fun.”
Her TikTok is an ode to the movie Booksmart, which follows a high school gunner obsessed with getting into the Ivy League. In one of my favorite scenes, the main character finds out that a seemingly underachieving classmate will be attending the same school as her. She feels shocked, even cheated. As the scene ends, a voice in her head echoes, “You’ve worked harder than anyone who’s ever doubted you. Worked harder, worked harder, worked harder …”
This theme speaks to a growing culture among many students, in part because of the ways so many schools in the United States foster gatekeeping and competitive environments. “Working hard” is expected to result in acceptance to a “good” college, followed by the promise of a job. And when peers who have “worked less” end up at the same institutions, there is a feeling of unfairness, followed by questions like “Could I have gotten away with less?”
The education system has come to reinforce capitalist ideas, teaching students that anything is possible with hard work and that their achievements are deserved, even though academic institutions are structurally designed to be inequitable. GPAs and test scores, for example, are shallow and easily skewed representations of intelligence, but are still widely used to determine admissions and funding. In light of the pandemic, schools are finally being forced to attempt alternative forms of evaluation and learning, and to more deeply consider students’ needs.
I attended a competitive public high school in a Southern California suburb, where attending SAT prep classes in the summer was a norm. The school had the kind of reputation that drew families to the area, hoping to get their kids zoned. Classes started at 7:30 am, and students who participated in extracurriculars usually didn’t leave campus until 5 pm. Exhaustion and burnout culture were so glorified that the school eradicated class rankings in an attempt to ease competitiveness. Nerds were more respected than jocks, and at the end of every academic year, a Facebook group circulated for students to announce what college they had committed to.
I enjoyed learning but didn’t participate in the cutthroat environment, especially after watching my friends stress. When I moved on to higher education, I took what I needed from institutions (degree credentials, facilities and resources, certain classes and professors) and went through the motions for anything that didn’t serve me (testing, core classes, awkward networking). My brother, on the other hand, had dreams of becoming a lawyer since age 15 and often worked until he had permanent bags under his eyes.
In high school, he slept an average of five hours a night and was part of a friend group that vigorously pulled all-nighters, completed assignments others might call busywork, enrolled in a mix of AP and “easy A” courses to boost their GPAs, and strategically divvied up club leadership positions. “Every November,” he told me, they “underwent a hell week that we saw as a rite of passage,” consisting of mock trial, Model United Nations, and debate tournaments that ran over multiple days. When he fell sick during one of these hell weeks, a friend guilt-tripped him for ditching the group.
After college, my brother worked as a paralegal; many of his high school peers also went on to work at law firms, banks, or management consulting firms, places where employees work with intangible assets and joke about “selling their souls.” Years of throwing themselves into the school system had primed them for the late nights and tedious tasks that corporate jobs all but require. Their positions could be lauded as measures of their intelligence and hard work, but they are equally due to their access to resources.
There are numerous barriers to entry in academic institutions, including letters of recommendation, GPA minimums and degree requirements, insufficient access to disability accommodations, legacy admissions/nepotism, narrow teaching methods, segregation and lack of school resources, and the questions of time and money: who has to work and support their families while attending school; who can afford private tutors, extracurricular fees, test prep courses, and tests themselves; whose parents have the time and ability to help with schoolwork. Students who are able to overcome systemic barriers are often championed as tokens of diversity and proof that anything is possible with hard work, when these success stories are, for the most part, singular exceptions to the rule.
Thousands of nonprofit organizations act as external lifelines, hoping to fill in the education system’s failings. Questbridge’s National College Match pairs “the nation’s most exceptional low-income students with leading colleges and opportunities,” supporting students with full scholarships or generous financial aid. Programs like these, along with specialized public schools that require testing to gain admission, might seem like generous offerings, and in many ways they’re invaluable to students who might otherwise be excluded altogether. But they do distract from the larger question of why students must prove themselves “exceptional” to have access to a fair education, one free of student debt and the strings that often come attached with nonprofit grants and scholarships.
In Oakland, California, there is a long history of non-privatized alternatives to the school system, starting with the Black Panther Party’s youth institutes and programs in the 1960s and ’70s. Designed to serve the community without government restrictions, these programs had as their mission to “educate to liberate,” directly challenging capitalist views of education and providing a blueprint for future organizers.
My friend Vohid Ergashkulov immigrated to the US from Uzbekistan when he was 15, and quickly became dissatisfied with the public high school he attended in Brooklyn. “I’m an active learner and like studying through asking questions, gaining experience, and making mistakes,” he said. “When you go to school here you sit and listen and don’t have an objective. The subjects we had to take weren’t interesting, and the teachers didn’t take the time to explain things. I wasn’t good at American math, but I was good at math back home.”
Vohid later spent two years at a community college, earning an associate’s degree before deciding that the payoff of a four-year degree wasn’t worth pursuing. Instead, he opted to explore advancement directly in the workforce. “When you go to school, you learn how to work for someone else. I didn’t want to learn how to work for a salary. I wanted to be a self-learner.”
In many non-corporate industries, grades are no longer as heavily weighted as work experience, with references and résumés more closely scrutinized than transcripts. Camila Bustos, who completed her undergrad at Brown University in 2016 and is a current JD candidate at Yale Law School, is going into public interest rather than corporate law. “For public interest organizations, although grades matter, what matters most is your experience, so how you lived your summers and what kind of clinic experiences you’ve had,” she said. “I’ve never really been asked for my transcripts — maybe once, which is kind of hilarious for law school. At the same time, corporate firms want Yale Law students no matter what.”
Both universities Camila attended have moved beyond the traditional 4.0 grading scale: In 1969, Brown implemented a “New Curriculum” that eliminated GPA calculations, allowing undergrads to opt for as many pass/fail classes as desired. Instead of using grades to assess students, they promoted evaluations based on student work portfolios, course performance reports, and letters of recommendation. Yale Law School also experienced a period of student-driven reform around the same time, replacing traditional letter grades with pass, low pass, and honors (H) categories for the top third of each class. The change was an attempt to ease student competition, but some say it unintentionally put a high premium on H’s and extracurriculars.
Camila is a big proponent of the pass/fail system. During the pandemic, a fall survey was sent to Yale Law students, essentially asking, “How should we grade you?” Camila reported, “All of the affinity groups — the first-generation students, Latinx students, Black students, the Asian American Association — and a huge majority of the student body voted to continue credit/fail because we’re still in a global pandemic.” Despite the overwhelming student response, the faculty voted to continue the honors/pass/low pass system, citing studies that claim minorities and first-generation professionals are scrutinized in ways that those with privilege are not, therefore making it more difficult to compare them without grades.
Camila did not find this argument compelling, considering Yale’s prestigious reputation. “The reason why firms are going after Yale Law grads is not because of our grades, whether that’s a P or an H; it’s because they assume we’re the smartest of the smartest, which I disagree with — I think people end up at this school for structural reasons — but they assume that and end up offering jobs and trying to recruit students from these institutions.”
The only way for small reforms to have any widespread impact is for powerful institutions to hold themselves accountable and push for inclusivity. Camila continued. “I think that if schools like Yale and Harvard don’t take the lead and say, ‘Let’s think differently about how we measure success, and let’s think in a more innovative way,’ then it’s so much harder for schools that don’t have the resources, the legitimacy, the reputation. There’s this idea that if you open the floodgates and allow more flexibility for students, then they’re not going to care, but I think the pandemic shows us that isn’t true.” It’s also worth considering why people privilege the actions of historically “elite” institutions and look to them as role models in the first place.
During the pandemic, many universities adjusted their admissions processes by making SAT and ACT scores optional, but in many cases this furthered the gap between students rather than diminishing it. If testing locations near them closed, high schoolers who were financially able would go as far as road-tripping or flying to different states to take the SAT, while others were left without options. Similarly, some law schools now accept GRE scores instead of only requiring the LSAT, yet many students still feel limited because this standard isn’t consistent over a wide range of schools.
When the onus of reform is left to individual, privatized schools, particularly powerful ones, there is no incentive to change the system or culture of elitism. Underrepresented and marginalized students are left to “work hard” in an attempt to infiltrate the university, but when they do make it, they often aren’t supported. Intentionally or not, our current mode of academic institutions has sold a false American dream under the guise of education, warping people’s ideas of what learning can and should be.