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.

Author: Andrea Kaston Tange

Andrea Kaston Tange is professor of Victorian literature and culture at Eastern Michigan University, Past President and Treasurer of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and editor of the *Journal of Narrative Theory*.

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