Elite Students: True Merit or Socioeconomic Privilege?

In my Labor Employment Relations class, which focuses on Race and Gender Employment, we recently finished reading a book called ‘Pedigree’, by Lauren Rivera. This book looks at elite students’ (kids who come from families in the top 20%) continued success. While there is a belief in America that hard work and dedication will lead to success, this book proves that this concept of a meritocracy does not truly exist in the U.S. Rivera finds that those who come from poor backgrounds and manage to go to elite universities on average still have a difficult time getting elite jobs, in comparison to the more common socioeconomically privileged elite students. Unfortunately, she also finds that while looking at potential candidates, interviewers are very subjective and often hire those who they feel most similar to, and who will ‘fit’ the best with people of their company. As Rivera’s research is based on prestigious law or consulting firms, the workers there tend to be white males. Of course, if interviewers value how one will fit in with others over a candidate’s actual skills and experience, the pattern of privilege given to well-off white men will persist, making it harder for people of other genders, races, or socioeconomic backgrounds to get jobs which they are qualified for.

Rivera takes us through exactly how ‘rich kids’ have extremely increased chances at getting elite jobs. Most often, elite parents have gone to college. Therefore, they know what universities look for in their applicants. These parents know what kind of extracurricular activities to involve their children in. They are able to afford private high school, or even elementary school for their kids. They have the ability to pay for standardized test tutoring and mentoring on college essays. These are just some of the ways that demonstrate how having more money is a huge advantage in one’s future college acceptance. While someone from a less privileged background can work extremely hard in school, if they also are obligated to work, they may not have as much to offer compared to the rich kid who had decent grades, but went to a prestigious high school, was an excellent golf player, was involved in multiple clubs and had plenty of volunteering experience because he was not busy working. This is an example of the lack of meritocracy in our current system. While the SAT is supposed to be a fair measure of one’s intelligence, those who are not naturally good test takers will need to study more, or receive tutoring for it. This is where it is no longer is a fair test.

All throughout their lives, these elite students are told that they are the brightest, smartest, and most hard working people. When they get to job interviews, they are again at an advantage because the most valued aspects in a candidate, according to Rivera’s findings, are first school prestige, extracurricular activities, then GPA. This causes a problem because it leads to our country’s leaders to believe that they truly earner their place in society, and to think that in America, a meritocracy exists. Most of our politicians come from these highly privileged backgrounds. Thus, they are reluctant to question America’s schooling and interview system, as they believe that hard work will lead to success. Unfortunately, we need leaders who will make our country more fair by leveling the playing field in education and later in jobs.

This video explains the concept of a meritocracy, or a lack thereof, in the U.S, in more depth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTDGdKaMDhQ. The video calls for positive discrimination- perhaps better known as affirmative action. Affirmative action, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, are policies “in which an institution or organization actively engages in efforts to improve opportunities for historically excluded groups in American society”. Examples of affirmative action is the heightened acceptance of non-whites into colleges, or women into a certain firm. While affirmative action tends to cater to women and people of other races, it tends to ignore socioeconomic status. It is greatly beneficial for women, African Americans, and other underrepresented groups, but what about those in lower working class? Lower class individuals should be included in affirmative action policies to help bring about a meritocracy, or as close to one as we can.

One thought on “Elite Students: True Merit or Socioeconomic Privilege?

  1. It was very interesting to read this blog because I am very aware of these topics already. I may have mentioned the ideas of meritocracy and social reproduction in one of your last blogs (in my comment.)
    It seems like your Labor employment relations class focuses on some of the same topics that my Education and American theory and policy class focuses on – meritocracy and socioeconomic status. The idea in Rivera’s book about those coming from poorer backgrounds not being able to get the same jobs as those who come from a higher socioeconomic background is extremely relevant, especially where I’m from because I have personally seen it.
    Where I live, there are people who have parents who own large companies. The children of these families have interned for these companies in the summer, getting a position as an intern solely because his or her parents own that company. Thus, when looking at future careers after college, these children will automatically get a job at this company. Or, because of the value of his or her internship, he or she will have a good resume applying for other jobs.
    On the other hand, those who don’t come from a high socioeconomic family background won’t look as good ‘on paper,’ despite if they have worked extremely hard throughout their lives to get where they are.
    Rivera’s comments about what colleges look for is also relevant to the idea of socioeconomic status because most times, there are questions on the application of where the parents went to college. Generally speaking, if a parent has gone to the college in the application, the child has more of an opportunity of getting accepted because of an idea of legacy. The same student may have worse grades than another student who does not have legacy, but still get in over the student because of his or her legacy.

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