Tag Archives: elite colleges


The conventional meritocratic recipe for success is simple enough: study hard in school, get good grades, be involved in one’s community, find an appropriate college, apply for jobs in your field of study, and everything else falls in place. But that’s not how it really works says Lauren A. Rivera, author of Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

The path to success she sees is this:  Be born to upper-middle-class or wealthy parents. Know what academic tracks to be on by the end of middle school — knowledge that one acquires from well-educated parents and school counselors with low caseloads. Get involved early in the competitive sports favored by elites, such as lacrosse, tennis, sailing, skiing, golf, cycling, climbing, soccer, and running. Test well enough to get into an elite university.

Apply for a first job in an Elite Professional Services Firm (EPS), the “finishing school” for American elites. They include Wall Street, top management consulting, and exclusive law firms. After you’ve demonstrated that you’re “one of us” in the interview get on the EPS launching pad, which eventually leads to a high-status career in corporate America, politics, or the nonprofit world. Eventually, have children with a spouse of a similar class background, raise them in fine neighborhoods with top schools, sent them to elite universities, and the “virtuous” cycle of elite reproduction continues.

The book offers a rare glimpse into the hiring practices of EPS firms and how they differ from “the dominant theory of hiring” in the United States. The dominant model holds that employers hiring decisions are based largely on “estimates of human capital, social capital, gender and race. But that model is inadequate, she argues, because it fails to account for the increasingly powerful role that one’s class background plays in the recruiting and hiring practices firms that prepare one for leadership roles in society.

Rivera, a management professor at Northwestern University, acknowledges these trends with alarm. Her book goes further than most in that she looks beyond elite college admissions to how elite students find high-status jobs. As a direct observer and participant in the hiring process at an unnamed EPS firm, Rivera shows that elite education is a virtual prerequisite for entry into high-status jobs — jobs that according to the commonly viewed ideal of meritocracy should be available to any competitor on the basis of ability and experience. She demonstrates, convincingly, that’s not the case.

Raised working class in Los Angeles by an immigrant single mom while her father was in prison, Rivera says she was able to penetrate this rarified atmosphere due to her own experiences attending elite prep schools, colleges and graduate school.  She describes being “checked out” by the insiders of the firm in which she carried out her case study, who determined that she was “one of us,” before agreeing to be interviewed for her study.

The author says she did not set out to prove any particular theory, but allowed the data to drive her interpretations.  She concludes that the hiring practices of certain employers — ones that are pivotal in shaping the nation’s future leaders — are driven by considerations of class status. Class, she argues — and the social capital associated with class, is more important than virtually any other factor in whether certain high-statues employers will even consider an applicant for a job.

The key word is pedigree: the array of background traits, including the cultural, social, and educational capital passed from one generation to the next, which EPS candidates bring to the competition for elite jobs. But it’s a closed competition.  One must get through the gates first.  A candidate’s pedigree determines whether his or her application to an EPS firm is legitimately considered in the competition, or tossed in a slush pile of candidates who have no realistic chance to even compete for such jobs.

Of course, pedigree has always been influential in hiring decisions for first jobs at elite professional service firms.  While Rivera acknowledges this, she contends that the rules surrounding pedigree have changed over the generations.  Although elite employers have always hired on the basis of pedigree, the mechanism is now far more indirect. Finding young talent to fill society’s most important and highly paid jobs once was based on descent, the handing over of familial economic power from one generation to the next.

Today, elites have modernized the rules of entry. Rather than explicit bloodlines being the determining factor, the outcome biased toward elites is interpreted as just the rational outcome of the “meritocracy” at work.  Now, just as elite colleges contend that they admit students on the basis of cognitive talent, elite employers claim their highly competitive hiring practices lead to finding the best and brightest young employees.

But the way elites choose talent is hardly an open competition, Rivera argues. Rather, EPS hiring is a “sponsored contest.” While any college graduate is free to apply for a position, only those who are pre-qualified are actually permitted to compete.  The most important pre-qualification is earning a degree from one of two types of schools.  Generally, EPS firms maintain two lists of colleges from which they draw the applicant pool.  First is small list of so-called “core” schools that have fed firms’ talent requirements for decades.  The relationships are historic, steadfast, and habitual. Think Ivy League, especially colleges that are within a few hours drive from power centers of finance, banking and law.

Next is a list of “target” schools that firms have relied on for talent, but to a far lesser extent than core schools.  The pivotal difference between a sponsored and an open competition is the behavior of gatekeepers in seeking talent.  EPS firms go to great efforts to seek out the kinds of college graduates that fit the firm’s culture.  The firms go to the students, spending valuable time and money traveling to the listed campuses and recruiting for their applicant pool.

There is one noteworthy exception, Rivera says.  If a highly regarded EPS firm happens to occupy a booth at a “diversity” job fair, that’s likely no more than a show and tell, serving the firms’ needs to convey itself as an equal opportunity employer, which enables them to compete for federal contracts.  An open competition for jobs is far different: in almost no instance does a gatekeeper for an open contest seek out applicants. In this sense, then, a competition for jobs at the post office is far more competitive than hiring the chosen candidates for any EPS firm.

Then comes the sorting of resumes and the interview process.  At these stages, evaluators at EPS firms, often busy staffers and analysts who work with high workloads, are pretty much left to their own preferences without any firm guidelines from lowly valued human resource departments.  A typical evaluator will spend no more than 60 seconds per resume. In that brief moment, the evaluator scans resumes for positive signals of fit with the firm or red flags that suggest a bad fit.  These decisions are often based on personal biases, reflecting the evaluators’ own background.  Rivera calls this “looking glass” merit: evaluators choose candidates like themselves, with similar family backgrounds and cultural habits, down to the sorts of recreational activities and sports they might share in common.

For example, in the off-chance that a candidate at this stage had graduated with high honors at, say, the University of North Carolina, that would be considered a red flag.  “State schools,” as public universities are called in this competition, would be considered a sign of “intellectual failure.”   Candidates who’ve graduated form a core school are presumed to have the cognitive ability to do the job — although no actual evidence of this presumption exists, Rivera says.

One example stands out.  Rivera interviewed a hiring consultant named Natalie, who examined an application from Sarah, a graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business.  Natalie noted that Stern was a top ten business school, but not a top three school. “She’s there either because her husband is in New York or she applied to business schools and she didn’t get into Harvard or Stanford.”  For Natalie, Sarah’s graduating from NYU’s Stern School of Business was a red flag, indicating some kind of intellectual failure.

Another red flag is whether the candidate happened to participate in the wrong types of sports in school. Evaluators often looked for similarities in recreational activities as a signal for shared interests and comfort level. One evaluator told Rivera he always asked a job candidate what he or she did for “fun.” The answer wasn’t acceptable if the activity were not something that was fun to him.  One candidate told the evaluator that he liked reading the Wall Street Journal for fun. An EPS evaluator told Rivera, “Nobody reads the Wall Street Journal for fun. And if they are unable to come up with something they do for fun, they are done.”

The classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms might not be so unsettling if such firms had not achieved the level of status, economic power, and influence that they currently enjoy in American life, Rivera contends.  Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent “of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms,” Rivera says.  In addition to the highly skewed demand for EPS jobs, this “holy trinity,” has become a well-traveled springboard to leadership positions in all aspects the United States.

Rivera cites research that America is unique among other advanced nations in the extent that people care about the reputation and prestige of one’s alma mater. In few other countries has one’s potential for leadership been so closely tied to where one attended college. As Rivera demonstrates, that has become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the new meritocracy. Exceedingly influential firms have uniquely positioned themselves as “finishing schools” for America’s elites, and yet there is virtually no evidence to suggest whether the system selects for the best, or simply the more well-positioned and well-polished.

For the most part, Rivera’s analysis is believable and compelling. We’ve always known such discrimination along class lines exists at elite professional firms, but she may be the first to inspect the detailed mechanisms that perpetuate the practice.  She fails, however, to address other types of superficially open, but actually closed competitions in which insiders are known to have unfair access to certain jobs in the United States.  The practice is not uncommon. These jobs would include children of police officers, firefighters, union tradesman and similar careers.  Remember?  “It’s who you know, not what you know.”

What’s more, one could argue that EPS firms are selecting candidates most equipped — intellectually, socially and behaviorally — to succeed in jobs that require an unusual ability to communicate and be comfortable with high-status clients in the corporate world.  Evaluators would naturally doubt, for example, whether a first generation college or professional school graduate attending a modestly selective university would have the polish to succeed.

Still, the classed-based hiring practices of EPS firms is unsettling, compared to the semi-open competitions for, say, police or union jobs.  EPS firms are unique in that they occupy far greater status, economic power, and influence than many careers. Owing to the high pay and high status that EPS firms use to tantalize graduates, significant numbers of elite college graduates have turned to EPS firms for their first jobs out of college, ignoring opportunities at other types of employers such as manufacturing and educational institutions.  At Harvard alone, more than 70 percent of each senior class typically applies to investment banks or consulting firms, says Rivera, quoting Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker.

In addition Americans love a competition that’s open to all comers, like the “Open Championship” in Great Britain and the U.S. Open here. The purpose of these tournaments is to identify the best golfer on the planet during a week’s competition, based strictly on performance.   The opportunity is open to any golfer, not just to those from private country clubs. Indeed, a competition rigged to pick the privileged few is abhorrent to our collective sensibilities. Exclusion based on the conceit that graduates of certain American colleges and universities are intellectually deficient is reminiscent of the days when the U.S. Army rated recruits on the basis of IQ tests.  Those tests purportedly demonstrated the intellectual superiority of immigrants from Arian nations over cognitively deficient immigrants like Jews and Italians.

“Because of the way they hire,” Rivera writes, “these employers end up systematically excluding smart, driven, and socially skilled students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds from the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the United States, positions that serve as gateways to the country’s economic elite.”


Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist who has figured out something important – many Americans are completely caught up in the Frank Brunicostly, pointless, and often damaging obsession with getting their children into our supposedly elite colleges and universities.  His new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is his effort at talking sense into parents and students about this.

Bruni’s subtitle tells us that he means to give us an “antidote to the college admissions mania,” and I think the book succeeds quite well at that. In sum, he argues that students can get a very good education at a non-prestigious college or university and also that getting into one of our insanely sought-after elite schools is no guarantee of getting a good education. He writes, “The nature of a student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the skills he or she picks up, the self-examination undertaken, the resourcefulness honed – matters more than the name on the institution attended.”

That’s right, but a great many Americans put themselves through years of terrible angst over the presumed need to get into a prestige college. That has become a big part of our individual “brands.” Because the number of places in those schools is small, however, lots of students end up devastated when they don’t get in and have to “settle” for a backup school. Bruni quotes one young woman who said, “I felt so worthless” after being rejected by all of her top choices.

Doing Well at Denver

To show that the college “brand” obsession is a mistake, Bruni recounts quite a few interesting cases where individuals have done extremely well in life even though they attended non-prestige schools. One of those stories is that of Dick Parsons, Chief Executive Officer of Time Warner and Citigroup. Where’d he go to school? Harvard? Princeton?

No – University of Hawaii. Parsons told Bruni that he “can’t remember a single thing he learned in college,” except that he could handle the world far from home.

Condoleezza Rice is another fabulous success story, of course, but she didn’t enroll in an elite university. In fact, she didn’t play the game of hunting for colleges at all. She went to the University of Denver because her father had taken a position there. Moreover, she took some time in discovering her real interest. At first, she was a music major, but soon realized that, good as her piano talents were, she wasn’t going to have a career as a virtuoso.

After meandering along for a while at Denver, she happened to take a course entitled, “Introduction to International Politics” taught by Czech refugee Josef Korbel. She was fascinated with the subject and immersed herself in it, taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn from a great scholar. Later, Rice would take her Ph.D. under Korbel, go on to become provost at Stanford, and eventually Secretary of State.

Furthermore, Bruni shows, the prestige schools that so many students sweat blood trying to get into don’t have a lock on awards such as MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” and Fulbright scholarships. Many of those recipients graduated from obscure colleges. That fact underscores his point that college education is what the student makes of it. Students who are eager to learn can almost always find one or more faculty members who’ll be delighted to have such a student to mentor—but it might be easier to make that connection at a small school than a big, famous one.

His College? Nobody Asked

Bruni also acknowledges that having gone to college, prestigious or otherwise, might have very little to do with an individual’s later success. His own story is enlightening in that regard. He could have gone to an Ivy, but instead chose the University of North Carolina (and now regrets that he devoted so much of his time there to fun rather than taking better advantage of the learning opportunities available). Did his UNC degree or his subsequent degree at Columbia have anything to do with his journalism career?

Not much. He writes of his first full-time position with the New York Post, “the Post hired me only after, and because of, a four-week tryout, the success of which had less to do with the classes I’d taken at Columbia than the writing I’d done at the UNC newspaper and on the side. And none of the people who hired me for subsequent jobs ever asked about or mentioned Columbia – or, for that matter, Chapel Hill.”

That is a point critics of the entire degree mania have been making for many years – college credentials often have little to do with the student’s life after graduation. Sadly, even though those credentials frequently do little to enhance the individual’s knowledge and skill, they have become generally regarded as essential for a host of jobs that are mostly learned by doing.

Without meaning to, Bruni doesn’t merely indict the elite college admissions, mania; he also indicts the entire “got to go to college” mania.

The book’s case that going to an elite college is not essential for success is solid; unfortunately, Bruni doesn’t examine the related question, whether going to an elite college could actually be a big mistake. That’s important because liberals insist on racial preferences to get “minority” students into those schools. Supposedly, going to a prestige college is a great benefit, so when the likes of Harvard and Berkeley bend their admission standards to enroll those students, they’re not only “improving diversity,” but also advancing social justice.

What about ‘Diversity’?

As many researchers have observed, however, using preferences puts weaker students in academic settings where they do poorly. They might have done fairly well at a school with lower standards; attending a prestige institution sets them up for failure, or at least sliding into one of the soft majors with lousy career prospects. In other words, they’ve been mismatched. Unfortunately, Bruni never mentions the work of Richard Sander or other affirmative action critics. That would mean challenging one of the great shibboleths of leftist policy. He doesn’t go there.

Not only does Bruni fail to consider the harm done by mismatching students into prestige colleges, he also tries to shore up the progressive crusade for “diversity.” Although most of his book sensibly argues that college education depends on what the individual student makes of it, he tries to pitch the notion that “diverse” schools are necessarily better. “College needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplanned territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they are,” he writes.

That sounds delightful to liberal social engineers who think that they’re able to make education better by mixing in just the ideal proportions of students who “represent” various racial and socio-economic groups. But it’s not true. Most of the book shows that it’s not true. Condi Rice did not get a superb education at Denver because the campus was or wasn’t “diverse.” She got that education because she came across a professor who got her deeply interested in his subject.

Or consider another college that Bruni praises, St. John’s with its two campuses where students immerse themselves in great books with dedicated professors. The wonderful education those students get has nothing at all to do with the blend of races in the classes.

Nevertheless, the book conveys a useful message — stop worrying and wasting money trying to get into elite colleges when many others will do just as well or perhaps far better.