Employer Bias In Favor of Elite Institutions

Glen Altschuler’s recent article considers the sobering evidence presented in a new book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, by a professor of Management at Northwestern University.

Lauren Rivera’s study of hiring practices at “top-tier investment banks, law firms and consulting companies” may not constitute a look at a truly representative sample of most people’s “dream jobs” (as Altschuler’s title suggests it does)–given that dream jobs here are defined as extremely high paying (undoubtedly also high-stress) ones in the corporate world. However, the larger points at stake in Rivera’s analysis are both sobering and clearly in line with other recent studies that have emerged about the enormous difficulties working-class students face in income mobility. For just two examples, consider this recent New York Times story about the degree to which adult income levels can be predicted by where a child grows up, or these more discipline specific findings by economist David Colander about the shockingly small number of (elite) institutions that produce the vast majority of hires into tenure-track jobs.

The most telling details, to my mind, are the ones that make clear that class is an inescapable barrier in hiring in many ways. For example, Altschuler notes that:

Applicants who were not involved in formalized, high-status extracurricular activities (rock-climbing, lacrosse, cello playing, unpaid internships at organizations with a brand name) were judged unlikely to fit into “a fraternity of smart people” – and did not often move to the interview stage.

It is clear here that employers are privileging activities that are predicated on large disposable incomes and the luxury of extensive leisure time–something impossible for working-class students ever to have accessed. Most insidious, however, is that assumption that such activities are the only reliable markers of intelligence. The “fraternity of smart people” here mentioned is in fact, obviously, a fraternity of rich ones. Similarly:

Interviewers also rewarded applicants who told compelling life stories that emphasized individual choice, freedom, passion and control.

Bootstrapping narratives can subvert existing socioeconomic and racial biases in hiring. However, Rivera suggests, quite often individuals who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are reluctant to disclose personal information to a stranger in a workplace setting.

In this case, even the fact of having substitute work experience for extra-curricular ones does not necessarily help a job candidate, if he or she is made uncomfortable about disclosing a history that includes what feels like humble jobs.

There is little, perhaps, that faculty can do about such hiring biases or practices, except to be aware of them and consider how to mentor students to address them. Helping students see the value of their own experiences and helping them figure out how to articulate those values are crucial, if ever such a closed circle of hiring assumptions is to be penetrated.

Navigating the academy

In investigating, “What is it like to be poor at in Ivy League school?” Brooke Lea Foster points out not just anecdotes that might give faculty pause, but also all-too-common experiences that circle around a sort of identity crisis that faces low-income students in elite educational settings.

One key issue is recognizing that access is merely the first hurdle:

But receiving a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, while a transformative experience for the nation’s poorest students, is only the first hurdle. Once on campus, students report feelings of loneliness, alienation, and plummeting self-confidence. Having grant money for tuition and fees and holding down jobs, too, as virtually all of them do, doesn’t translate to having the pocket money to keep up with free-spending peers. And some disadvantaged students feel they don’t have a right to complain to peers or administrators about anything at all; they don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful.

In addition to not wanting to appear “ungrateful,” students who find themselves financially separated from those who are intellectually their classroom peers often do not know how to seek out the resources to help them adjust better.

After parachuting into a culture where many kids seem to have a direct line to prestigious internships through their well-off parents and feel entitled to argue with a professor over a grade, poor kids sense their disadvantage. Even if they’re in the same school as some of the nation’s smartest and best-connected young people, students’ socioeconomic backgrounds seem to dictate how they navigate campus. Research shows, for example, that upper-middle-class kids are better at asking for help at college than low-income ones, in part because they know the resources available to them.

This article is thorough and detailed not only about the problems working-class students face, but also about the kinds of mentoring that Ivy League colleges have begun to institute to help such students acclimate better. Even less prestigious schools would do well, it seems to me, to consider implementing some of these strategies for creating both bridge programs between high school and college and mentoring groups within college in order to assist their students in navigating the often-alien world of higher education’s expectations.

Simplifying the Scholarship Process

As this recent article on the QuestBridge scholarship program points out, one of the biggest hurdles for low-income students in applying for colleges is that the application forms for financial aid are almost impossibly complex.

This innovative program improves the process–but not just by making the application simpler. Instead, it starts the year before most kids are applying to college, while they are still high school juniors, and contains a multi-year set of interventions that include mentoring and guidance which will enable the entire college application process to run more smoothly.

The system was devised on realizing that:

One, the complexity of the financial-aid process is scaring students away from college. . . .

Two, large amounts of well-meaning scholarship money — from private sources as well as from Washington and state governments — is fairly ineffectual. It helps many students who would graduate from college regardless, rather than those with the skills to graduate who are at risk of not doing so.

Three, not every problem created by inequality is fiendishly difficult to solve.

Perhaps most significantly, the students who succeed in matching with elite colleges through QuestBridge are guaranteed not just one year of funding, but four. And this promise that the funding is not at risk of disappearing halfway through the degree process seems the other crucial ingredient in enabling success.

The takeaway is not simply that there are promising students who are deterred by the combination of the expense of college and the difficulties of the application system itself. Instead, it seems, the most important thing to realize is that to enable promising students to succeed, it is imperative to identify them sooner, to provide practical assistance on getting through the application process, and to foster a longer-term sense that access to college dreams is not ephemeral. This last requires mentoring programs to complement the practical assistance with a combination of confidence building and role models who can help students realize their own potential

Access is only the first hurdle

This profile, of a woman who was part of an early program designed to guarantee college tuition to low-income high school students who managed to graduate, raises important issues of the kinds of barriers that students must overcome.

For Ms. Warren, as for many low-income students, the burden of growing up poor was too heavy for even the offer of a free ride to college or the support of a dedicated adviser to counter. In spite of the numerous college access programs like “I Have a Dream,” poverty remains the single largest determinant of whether a framed college degree will hang on the wall.

Six-year bachelor’s degree completion rates for students coming from poverty are lower today than they were in the 1970s, according to data from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education. In 2012,51 percent of low-income high school students enrolled in college in the fall after graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with 81 percent of students in the top third of the income scale.

“It’s hard not to ask, are these programs working?” said Rebecca A. Maynard, university trustee professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Though certain college access programs improve outcomes, in 2012 just 8.3 percent of students in the bottom economic quartile graduated from a four-year college (by age 24), compared with 73 percent of those in the top quartile, according to the Pell Institute.

One important, unanticipated, consequence of the “I Have a Dream” program, however, was the success rate of the children of those who were enrolled in the program. Even those who did not themselves complete college influenced their children to head towards higher education. And at least a few of those who were not able to manage college fresh out of high school have returned later in life to work towards degrees.

All of this suggests that, perhaps more than anything else, comprehensive mentoring may be one of the most important factors in predicting the success of low-income students in college. Even with scholarships and acceptance letters in hand, such students find it difficult to leave home, family, community; they are uncertain about how to do college; they need consistent help negotiating the pressures that affect not simply time- or money-management but also their senses of self.

Colleges To Be Ranked Based on Income Diversity

As a follow up to the previous post about the lack of income diversity at elite colleges, it is worth noting that the New York Times is apparently getting into the college-rankings business, planning to unveil what it is calling “a new ranking of colleges and universities based on their ability to attract underprivileged kids.”

“Having The New York Times shine light on the fact that an institution has very little economic diversity could have a powerful shaming effect” and be “an important counterweight,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a proponent of class-based affirmative action. “Right now,” he added, “it’s easier to hide.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education article linked here provides more information about the NYT goals, as well as offering some useful comparison to the U.S. News and World Reports and the Washington Monthly rankings that have drawn criticism for the metrics they use to determine rankings.

Income Diversity Lags at Elite Colleges

Important recent studies show that despite increasing numbers of low-income students scoring in the highest percentiles on national tests, the percentage of these students who attend elite colleges has not increased.

According to a recent (August 25, 2014) New York Times article (“Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges“):

A series of federal surveys of selective colleges found virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students who are less well off — less than 15 percent by some measures — even though there was a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college. Similar studies looking at a narrower range of top wealthy universities back those findings. With race-based affirmative action losing both judicial and public support, many have urged selective colleges to shift more focus to economic diversity.

The article raises complex questions of funding, priorities, and diversity that are worth considering in some detail. Perhaps none is more telling than this, however:

But even top private colleges with similar sticker prices differ enormously in net prices, related to how wealthy they are, so a family can find that an elite education is either dauntingly expensive or surprisingly affordable. In 2011-12, net prices paid by families with incomes under $48,000 averaged less than $4,000 at Harvard, which has the nation’s largest endowment, for example, and more than $27,000 at New York University, according to data compiled by the Department of Education.

None of that complexity is apparent to most consumers.

“The First-Generation Fallacy”

Reading Andrea Kaston Tange’s recent post about the hurdles facing low-income students got me thinking about what an alliance between first-generation college students and first-generation immigrants might look like, which got me thinking about a scene from Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

When Changez, the novel’s narrator, is interviewing for his first post-baccalaureate job, the recruiter asks if he’s on financial aid. When Changez admits that, yes, he is one of the few international students at Princeton receiving financial aid, the recruiter winks: “I was the first guy from my family to go to college. I worked a night shift in Trenton to pay my way … So I get where you’re coming from, Changez. You’re hungry.”

But the recruiter doesn’t get it. Changez’s hunger is not Horatio Alger-ian. Changez is a member of a waning Pakistani elite, a social class whose palatial manses and Punjab Club memberships mask their unserviceable debt. “Our situation,” Changez explains, “is not so different from that of the old European aristocracy … confronted by the ascendance of the bourgeoisie.” But Jim, the recruiter and proud first-generation college student, doesn’t hear this nuance. He wouldn’t hear it. He likes that Changez is like him. He likes mentoring Changez, saying things like “I never let on that I felt like I didn’t belong to this world. Just like you.”

The factitious solidarity Jim forces onto him makes Changez uncomfortable, but he has no choice but to let Jim believe that they are the same, that they grew up, as Jim puts it, “outside the candy story looking in, kid.” By coopting Changez’s narrative in this way, Jim enjoys a renewed vitality to his own progress narrative. He gets to dust off such hackneyed reminiscences about his working-class roots as “I was dirt poor. My dad died of gangrene. So I get the irony of paying a hundred bucks fore a bottle of fermented grape juice, if you know what I mean.”

That Changez doesn’t know what Jim means is immaterial. The point is that Changez is another poor boy who’s overcome adversity, just like Jim. This flattening of Changez’s intricate immigrant story into the plot of a Steve Earle song is arguably what starts the process of Changez’s radicalization. But Jim’s impulse to attach his experience to a larger cohort group is, I think, reasonable. First-generation college students find themselves isolated inside of the very stupid term picked to describe them.[1]

When applied to the experience of being the first member of a working-class family to attend college and not to the experience of having recently immigrated, the term “first-generation” is something of a false cognate. The word generation in both cases is a kinship term, as opposed to a term that names a birth cohort (like Generation X or Millennial Generation). Where it makes sense to apply a kinship term to recent immigrants, whose citizenship/residency is determined along family lines, it makes little sense to limit the sphere of identification for the “first-generation college student” to a family whose distinguishing characteristic is its lack of academic credentials.

To call students who are the first in their families to attend college “first-generation” is to limit them to a familial narrative, to isolate them from identification with a larger cohort group, whose sheer numbers might offer a source of stability and validity, if not also negotiating power.

Maybe we should start calling students who are the first in their families to attend college members of “Generation 1.” Maybe that use of generation, to identify an enrollment cohort and not a kinship status, would foster the meaningful solidarity whose absence from Jim the recruiter’s self-perception caused him to so sloppily, ethnocentrically, force himself onto Changez.


[1] The term “first-generation college student” came into popular use in the 1990s, following the 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the many follow-up studies conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). First loosely defined as a student who is the first in his family to have gone to college and earned a credential, the term was more officially (and more narrowly) defined in a 1998 NCES analysis as an undergraduate “whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.”


Retention: Partly a Problem of Student Mindset

Paul Tough’s “Who Gets to Graduate?” is a thorough and really thought-provoking article tracking several studies that have been done at the University of Texas about the biggest difficulties facing low-income undergraduates. This finding is sobering:

The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.

Interestingly, the work done at UT also demonstrates that there are relatively low-cost, not particularly time-consuming, and astonishingly effective things that can be done to offset these statistics. The article continues:

U.T.’s efforts are based on a novel and controversial premise: If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles. You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears. To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.

Primarily, the studies have found, the things that work best for helping students not merely stick with college but succeed have to do with mentoring, creating cohorts of incoming students, and providing peer-based anecdotes about how to cope with  feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, or insufficiency. The article is long, but the strategies–which include things like brief, interactive, online modules for all incoming students to complete as part of the final set of information they provide to the university on enrolling in their first year–are innovative and demonstrate astonishing kinds of success.

We encourage anyone interested in questions of retention to read this article. And we’d love to know what kinds of strategies have been tried at your institution–and whether they are proving effective or not.

College Party Culture: the New “Old Boys Network”?

In a recent OpEd column in the New York Times (“College, the Great Unequalizer”), Ross Douthat discusses the book Paying for the Party by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Armstrong and Hamilton’s years-long study followed a group of students at a Midwestern flagship state school throughout college and into their career lives, yielding, in Douthat’s words, the observation that the “American way of college rewards those who come not just academically but socially prepared, while treating working-class students more cruelly, and often leaving them adrift.”

For those of us whose classrooms are filled by working-class students, this observation that social background matters as much as academic background in preparing students to succeed in college feels, perhaps, intuitive. What might be done to push on the implications of this observation, however, is important.

Douthat chooses to see one of the most significant implications of the book as being one that will appeal to “social conservatives”: that the party culture that Armstrong and Hamilton examine reveals a central problem of moral laxity. Namely, the most successful people in college are those who have grown up in cultures of privilege in which partying without any sense that there could ever be consequences of any kind is apparently the norm. He writes:

[The study] is also a story about the socioeconomic consequences of cultural permissiveness — about what happens, who wins and who loses, when a youth culture in which the only (official) moral rule is consent meets a corporate-academic university establishment that has deliberately retreated from any moralistic, disciplinary role.

The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare.

I cannot strongly enough reject his dual implications: that “experiments in youthful dissipation” are the motivation for most students attend college, and that the primary frustration of working-class students at select institutions is their inability to party as hard as their wealthier peers. In my experience (at a less selective state university), working-class students struggle in many ways–both academic and social–that have to do with lack of preparedness for what it means to “do” college successfully. But these struggles are far more profound, and subtle, than the inability to party hard enough. And though I have not yet read Armstrong and Hamilton’s book (it’s now on my list), I suspect that their arguments about the role of the social culture of college–what, of course, we once called the Old Boys Network precisely to signal how social networks enabled success beyond college–are more nuanced as well.

This, it seems to me, is the far more important implication of the party culture problem to examine: that even once working-class students make it past the barriers to entrance at select institutions, they often find themselves disadvantaged in persistently insidious ways that have to more to do with their social than their academic credentials. What we, as members of institutions of higher learning, can do about this problem is, of course, one vital reason to highlight its existence. And we do a terrible disservice to working-class students who would benefit from thoughtful mentoring if we characterize the gap in class privilege as creating in them merely a desire to reach some Xanadu of amoral libertinism.

Help Us Build A Reading List

We would like to compile a list of resources for people who are concerned about issues of class in the academy. Our growing bibliography can be found here. It contains links to online articles that address a wide variety of issues–from surviving on adjunct salaries to empowering working-class students to mentoring new faculty and beyond–as well as a bibliography of books on related topics. Our aim is to provide starting points for conversation. If you have a book or article you would recommend we add to this list, please leave us a comment below. Please include links for online content. A sentence or two explaining why the resource is valuable and/or what it addresses would be very much appreciated.