Power and the Credentialed Class

Originally posted by me elsewhere on 02/02/2011

The very triteness of the phrase tends to obscure its truth:

It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.

This is the only reason people aspire to attend those universities that are charmingly referred to as “elite”. You occasionally hear of some middle class kid who racks up huge debt while preparing for a career as a primary school teacher at Yale. What can I say? A person who would seek out an elite university to pursue such a profession is either rolling in dough or a rube, possibly one who has been badly advised by secondary school counselors who are also rubes. If you intend on pursuing a career where your advancement does not depend on mingling with the wealthy and powerful, there’s no point in sinking to your eyeballs in debt. The elite universities will serve you best if your professional success is strongly dependent on how well-connected you are, as it often is for individuals who go into law, politics, investment banking, and business consulting.

According to Daniel Golden, ten to twenty five percent of admissions to elite universities are so-called “legacy admissions” in which a student is given preferential admission because a family member was an alumnus of that university. According to Daniel Golden, 22% of the Standford freshmen are legacies, as are 13.7% of Princeton, and 13.3% at Yale. On the face of it, the idea seems to be that legacy preferences exist to increase and sustain donations from alumni. However according to this Wikipedia article,

… at an aggregate (school-wide) level the decision to prefer legacies has not been shown to increase donations.

The former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, famously said:

Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is.

I would argue that the reason that the legacy enrollees are integral to the elite community is that the non-legacies are actually paying a premium in tuition precisely to meet such people and to be introduced to other members of the legacy enrollee’s elite circle of relatives and friends.

A recent research article by Lauren Rivera has confirmed that elite employers prefer to recruit employees from a handful of super-elite universities: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. And just like “y” is sometimes a vowel, it turns out that Wharton is sometimes super-elite. The elite employers in question are in industries such as investment banking, law and consulting. These firms weren’t overly concerned with how the individual did academically at their respective educational institution — just that they had managed to get in and complete their education there. It would appear that the reason achievement within the institution didn’t matter is because the research paper states (as quoted by Hsu):

… it was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes.

In fact employers tended to think that these super-elite universities did a worse job at educating their enrollees than non-elite school. Once again quoting the paper by proxy through Hsu:

…evaluators tended to believe that… super-elite instruction was “too abstract,” “overly theoretical,” or even “useless” compared to the more “practical” and “relevant” training offered at “lesser” institutions…

In fact, doing well in your classwork at one of these super-elite instiutions and engaging in extracurricular pursuits related to your discipline counted against you when elite firms were trying to make a hiring decision. Doing really well in school and belonging to discipline-related organizations were perceived as signals that the student in question was … well … a nerd. Here’s Hsu quoting the paper:

people who have like 4.0s… but you know don’t have any friends, have huge glasses, read their textbooks all day, those people have no chance here…

In order to further screen out nerds, recruiters for elite employers carefully scrutinized the applicant’s extra-curricular activities. According to Tom Bartlett’s analysis of the Riviera paper, being an excellent ping-pong player screamed, “NERD!!!”, but playing on your school’s crew team was cool. In fact, most of the extra-curricular activities which would tip an employment decision your way were those that only well-to-do families could afford. As Riviera puts it in her abastract, employers favored “high status, resource-intensive activities.” I had to laugh at her turn of phrase. Apparently saying “high status, resource-intensive” is a scholarly way of saying “expensive”.

You may recall that this past summer sociologists learned that admissions personnel at elite universities actually were less likely to accept students who had risen to leadership roles in 4-H or Future Farmers of America than students who had similar academic backgrounds but were bereft of farming experience. I’m guessing that being engaged in these activities is seen as another “nerd” marker, as well as demonstrating that you are from a much more socioeconomically humble background than the person who is involved in yacht racing or who joined a mountaineering team which successfully ascended a famous peak.

When I watch the reflexive spasm of hate which is directed at Sarah Palin, I am convinced that her lack of elite credentials makes her seem “uppity” when she expresses her viewpoints or exercises any kind of national leadership. Hence the concerted effort to slap her back down. And when I hear people talking about her lack of “gravitas”, I regard this as code-speak for signaling that she just isn’t elite enough. Instead of attending one of the super-elite schools, she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho.

In contrast political leaders such as the late Ted Kennedy are automatically elite because of birthright and education at an elite university, even if he wasn’t academically able to hack his Spanish class and was expelled for cheating (later to be readmitted). Similarly there is a host of powerful, political figures who attended super-elite law schools and then went on to fail their bar exams one or more times, like Hillary Clinton who attended Yale Law School then flunked her bar exam in Washinton, D.C. Or Governor Jerry Brown, who also attended Yale Law School and then flunked his first attempt at the bar exam in California. Or Michelle Obama, who attended Harvard Law School and then flunked her first effort at taking the bar exam in Illinois. Remember the point in attending an elite university is to provide you with the opportunity to make connections with other elites. Using your time there to make such connections will have a much bigger influence on your future success than what you learned (or failed to learn) while you were there.


As noted above, high-powered employers say

“super-elite instruction was “too abstract,” “overly theoretical,” or even “useless” compared to the more “practical” and “relevant” training offered at “lesser” institutions…

So instead they are using super-elite degrees as a marker for intellect and exploitable social connections. Interestingly Allahpundit just posted a piece in which he quotes a Harvard study that faults American higher education overall, including our “lesser” institutions and instead praises the Northern European approach:

In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, for instance, between 40 and 70 percent of high-schoolers opt for programs that combine classroom and workplace learning, many of them involving apprenticeships. These pathways result in a “qualification” that has real currency in the labor market…

Now wouldn’t that be something… instead of using credentials as a “marker”, we could actually provide instruction that would enhance our graduates’ value in the workforce. The same study Allahpundit cites says that university-induced boredom causes many people to drop out. Compare this with the high-powered employers above who actually go out of their way to avoid hiring “nerds” who like university classes… apparently they are seen as being a bit “off.” You’re not supposed to like it.



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