There was a time, not long ago, we spoke of the First, Second and the Third World. It was a simple scheme. Easy to understand. However, it is too simplistic.
You can google Gini Coefficients of any number of important countries starting from USA, China, and so on and you see the trend of growing income disparities.
In the US the bottom 1/2, maybe more, has not seen its real income grow while the top 2%, especially in the financial industry, has seen steady, even explosive share in total national income.
You open the papers these days and you read about the astronomical salaries and bonuses paid to Wall Street fellas and increasingly so, some women. Not so on Main Street which employs most of the workers in America.
What is happening in the economy has its mirror image in education.
Name a country, and I will name you on average not more than half a dozen of the most elite high schools and universities where "every" parent wants to send his/her kids.
In the UK you are looking at Oxford, Cambridge, London, St Andrews plus maybe 3 more. In France not more than half a dozen. In China, same story. The latest is the Chinese want to form their own "IVY League" with maybe 8 or 9 of their top schools.
America is the sole exception with more exclusive schools but they are still a tiny minority relative to the sum total of all universities in that country. I recommend Jonathan Cole's "The Great American University" for an amazingly detailed look at US universities, their strengths and their problems.
A few years back I gave a lecture to a small group of Princeton undergraduates. I told them two simple statistics:
the % of successful candidates passing the ultimate Imperial Chinese examination in the Forbidden City in the presence of the Emperor himself. It was less than 1%. Something like 0.80% if I remember what Princeton Professor Benjamin Elman told me. He is the authority in America on Chinese exam system.
His magisterial "A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China" is a must read, forbidding it is, to those who want to know Chinese history.
The other statistic I reminded those Princetonians was the admissions rate at Princeton: about 9%.
I told them in my lifetime getting into Princeton would be as difficult as passing the imperial exam in China and that admissions rate at Princeton would match that of the dynastic periods in ancient China.
The reasons are varied. Two stand out. Capacity at elite schools will not expand as fast the demand for admissions at a quality school as global incomes rise, in China, Russia, or Africa as English has become the global language.
The second reason is simply this: consumers want designer labels in buying handbags, electronics, cars. Princeton and its few peers have become, like it or now, the equivalent of a Bentley in autos, Rolex in watches, and so on.
Hence soon admissions rate will go below 1%.
This does not mean only Princeton can provide a quality education. In fact many smaller, less well-known do provide as good an education as Princeton. Some would say better.
But just as in consumption goods, brand name recognition is not just about vanity, though it definitely has that element. A Princeton degree translates easily into a better first job opportunity than a graduate from, say, Macalester or Reed, both excellent small colleges.
The article here is just confirming a trend of increasing demand outstripping demand. If Princeton is to accept the same number of freshmen in this year as in last at 2150, then given the number of applicants at 26166, the admission rate drops to 8.2%. In 30 years or less, that rate will be a small single digit and then will go below 1%.
My "punch line" to those "Princes" and "Princesses", as they are nicknamed by their counterparts in other schools, was that they should remember their privilege and do some seriously good deeds to wherever they hail giving some back to their fellow, less privileged fellow men and women. Their future, I told them, barring a careless and wanton waste, was guaranteed to be a comfortable one by virtue of their Princeton pedigree like few others.
What is also happening at elite universities is the growing disparity in endowment, or wealth.
The combined endowment of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Caltech will surpass the next 50, perhaps 100 of the best American universities. As this trend continues, these wealthy universities will basically corner most of the most sought after scholars and students and will further increase the brand gap between them and the "rest".
The unfortunate cliche about "the rich get richer" is getting truer and truer in terms of income disparity among countries, but most alarmingly within each country. An elite education is part of that wealth disparity equation.
How all that will end deserves serious thought.
The world is no longer meaningfully divided in First, Second and the Third World.
There is far more common ground between the elite in China, say, and USA than between the bottom 1/2 in China and that of the United States.
The article on Princeton admissions is here.