It's reflected in the fact that just 35 percent believe the U.S. economy is fair to the middle class, and only 41 percent believe it's fair to those willing to work hard. Still, it's not really the inequality that bothers people. After all, 65 percent believe that it's fair for those who create very successful companies to become very rich. The problem comes when some people earn big bucks simply because they can game the system in ways that aren't available to most Americans.
In America today, one of the biggest parts of gaming the system unfairly can be traced to the elite universities. Those who graduate from a top school have the credentials and connections to do well in life. It doesn't even matter how well they did in school or how hard they are willing to work.
Americans strongly believe that those who get more done should be paid more than those with a better education. But they don't see the system working that way.
This wouldn't be a problem if admissions to elite schools were based solely on finding the most qualified students. If a well-qualified poor or middle-class student had an equal chance of getting into a top school, Americans would embrace the result. But whether it's Harvard, Yale or any other elite university, the admissions process is designed to favor the wealthy and well-connected.
Elite schools give preferences to the children of those who previously attended the school. They also give preferences and special treatment to the children of large donors. These special preferences allow the well-connected to get into an elite university at the expense of more qualified students who don't have friends in high places.
Few Americans see this as fair. Just 38 percent believe it's fair for alumni children to receive special preferences. Not surprisingly, there is a clear income divide on this question. Most people who make at least $100,000 a year think such legacy preferences are fine. Most who earn less don't share that view.
In other words, those who benefit from the status quo think it's fair. Those who are discriminated against disagree.
Americans have a clear view of the way college admissions should work. Seventy-one percent believe it's best for our country if only the most qualified students are accepted. Seventy-eight percent believe admissions departments should not be allowed to know how much the parents of an applicant give to a school.
So far, this issue has not become a focal point for the populist mood sweeping the country. That's because just 40 percent recognize that our elite schools give such preferences to legacy students and the children of large donors. The awareness is much higher among those who benefit from the status quo.
But there are warning signs on the horizon. If a school gives admissions preferences to children of large donors, just 37 percent believe donations to the school should be tax-deductible. Americans don't mind private clubs. They just don't think taxpayers should fund them.
To fight income inequality in America, you need to fight the private club that gives special preference to the wealthy and well-connected. That means either making the college admissions process more equal or placing less value on the credential of graduating from a self-selecting club.
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