Elite Formation in the Educational System: Between Meritocracy and Cumulative Advantage

  • Richard Münch


The competition paradigm assumes that competition between educational institutions leads to better education which raises income levels. If there is equal access to better education, then it is possible to speak of a meritocracy. The elites within such a meritocracy are considered to be legitimate incumbents of their position. Thus the internationalisation of elite formation should lead to the establishment of a legitimate global meritocracy. However, drawing on a conflict-theoretical perspective shows that such claims are contradicted by some of the evidence examined. Intensified competition results, in fact, in the emergence of a new kind of “aristocracy”. This argument is examined drawing on the example of the USA and the role of international university rankings.


Elite formation Competition in education Meritocracy New aristocracy Global elite 


  1. ASA (American Statistical Association). (2014). ASA statement on using value-added models for educational assessment. Retrieved from
  2. Bourdieu, P. (1996). The state nobility. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  3. Davis, K., & Moore, W. E. (1945). Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10(2), 242–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Eisenhardt, K. (1989). Agency theory: An assessment and review. Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 57–74.Google Scholar
  5. Gaztambide-Fernández, R., & Garlen-Maudlin, J. (2015). Private schools in the public system. School choice and the production of elite status in the USA and Canada. In C. Maxwell & P. Aggleton (Eds.), Elite education. International perspectives (pp. 55–68). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Grek, S. (2009). Governing by numbers: The PISA “effect” in Europe. Journal of Education Policy, 1, 23–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Heckman, J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. (2006). The effects of cognitive and noncognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24(3), 411–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hood, C. (1991). A public management for all seasons? Public Administration, 69(1), 3–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Jones, D. (2015). 5 myths about standardized testing and the opt out movement. Retrieved from
  10. Kovacs, P. E. (2011). The Gates Foundation and the future of US “public” schools. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Kreckel, R. (2004). Politische Soziologie der sozialen Ungleichheit (3rd ed.). Frankfurt and New York: Campus.Google Scholar
  12. Lubienski, C. A. (2005). Public schools in marketized environments: Shifting incentives and unintended consequences of competition-based educational reforms. American Journal of Education, 111(4), 464–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lubienski, C. A. (2007). Marketing schools: Consumer goods and competitive incentives for consumer information. Education and Urban Society, 40(1), 118–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lubienski, C. A., Gulosino, C., & Weitzel, P. (2009). School choice and competitive incentives: Mapping the distribution of educational opportunities across local education markets. American Journal of Education, 115, 601–647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lubienski, C. A., & Theule Lubienski, S. (2014). The public school advantage. Why public schools outperform private schools. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  16. Lubienski, C. A., & Weitzel, P. C. (2010). The charter school experiment: Expectations, evidence and implications. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.Google Scholar
  17. McNamee, S. J., & Miller, R. K. (2004). The meritocracy myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  18. Merton, R. K. (1968a). The Matthew Effect in science. Science, 159(3810), 56–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Merton, R. K. [1949] (1968b). The self-fulfilling prophecy. In R. K. Merton (Ed.), Social theory and social structure (pp. 424–436). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  20. NAEP. (2016). National assessment of educational progress. Retrieved from
  21. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2015). Charter public schools serving 250,000 new students in 2015–16. Retrieved from
  22. National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Retrieved from
  23. OECD. (1996). Employment and growth in the knowledge-based economy. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  24. OECD. (1999). The knowledge-based economy: A set of facts and figures. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  25. OECD. (2010). The high cost of low educational performance. The long-run economic impact of improving PISA-outcomes. Retrieved from
  26. Picciano, A. G., & Spring, J. (2012). The great American education industrial complex: Ideology, technology and profit. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. Ravitch, D. (2010, March 9). Why I changed my mind about school reform. Wall Street Journal, A21.Google Scholar
  28. Ravitch, D. (2015). Education industrial complex. Retrieved from
  29. SAT. (2016). Scholastic aptitude test. Retrieved from
  30. Sellar, S., & Lingard, B. (2013). The OECD and global governance in education. Journal of Education Policy, 28(5), 710–725.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18(4), 387–394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. van Zanten, A., & Maxwell, C. (2015). Elite education and the State in France: Durable ties and new challenges. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), 71–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Young, M. (1958). The rise of meritocracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Münch
    • 1
  1. 1.Lehrstuhl für SoziologieOtto-Friedrich-Universität BambergBambergGermany

Personalised recommendations