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Friday, May 29, 2015

Pedigrees and Higher Education

At Inside Higher Ed, Jake New interviews Lauren Rivera, author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs (Princeton University Press),
Q: In the book, you note that the credential many firms "valued was not the education received at a top school, but rather a letter of acceptance from one." Should colleges be concerned by the fact that elite firms might care more about who an institution lets in than what that student gets out of the education there?
A: I think colleges should be concerned, particularly as it pertains to fulfilling their social and educational missions. But cynically, as I discuss in the book, I also think elite universities actually have strong incentives to turn a blind eye to this. Rankings and revenues have become crucial performance metrics for universities. At business and law schools, the salaries students earn after graduation factor directly into national rankings. So these schools have an incentive to send as many students as possible to these jobs, because they pay so much, regardless of why employers may be drawn to their students. [emphasis added] Maintaining close ties with these employers also is lucrative given that some universities charge firms large sums annually to “access” (i.e., interview) their students via on-campus recruiting. Having well-paid alumni can also affect donations down the line. So, there are conflicting incentives.
Q: If a student from a lower-class or working-class background graduated from Harvard, for example, would he or she finally be on a level playing field with students from elite backgrounds?
A: On a level playing field with students from Harvard from privileged class backgrounds? For the most part, no. The reason being that many of the signals of merit employers use in hiring -- like having a long track record of participating in leisure and passion-oriented extracurriculars and highly class-based definition of “polish” -- take time to learn and practice enough so they seem natural. The odds are even lower in law and business school, because the recruiting process happens so early on in students’ time on campus that they don’t really have time to learn both the rules of the game and how to play by them effectively. It’s not impossible, though, and does occasionally happen. I document some of these cases in the book. Many of these individuals had exposure to elite worlds prior to entering college or professional school, so they entered with a baseline of cultural capital. But although they are at a strong disadvantage compared to their more privileged peers, low-income students at a place like Harvard are at a strong advantage compared to low-income students at nonelite schools; in all likelihood, the latter will never get their résumés reviewed, let alone seriously considered.