One of the most famous studies on higher education and opportunity was published a little over fifteen years ago by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale. Using something called the College and Beyond Survey, they followed over 6,000 students who had been accepted to American universities in 1976, and then looked at their outcomes almost twenty years later, in 1995. The key finding was that holding SATs constant, school selectivity didn’t matter much. The important thing wasn’t attending Harvard, it was having the marks to get into Harvard (for whites, at least – for black students, accessing the networks available to selective school alumni did have a positive effect on education).
As selective universities became even more selective during the early 2000s, and their average student’s socio-economic background drifted upwards, this study was comforting: the rich were just wasting their money on Ivies, and the poorer but talented who were excluded from those schools would end up doing just as well, even if they went elsewhere. Except: I’ve never met an American parent who actually believed the study. Sure, they’d say, but things have changed since the mid-70s. Networks matter more, and by God the one thing you get at an Ivy League school is a network.
A book came out this past spring that explains why they’re right and Kruger and Dale are, if not wrong, then at least out of date. It’s called Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren Rivera, a professor at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University. It follows the graduate recruiting activities of a number of unnamed banking and consulting firms – the tiny fraction of companies that give 22 year-olds jobs that pay roughly six figures in the first year – across a number of Ivy League schools. And it will horrify you, and make you profoundly glad you don’t live in the United States.
The first couple of chapters are pretty mind-blowing. The descriptions of how these major banks and consulting companies are dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars – each – on recruiting activities on these Ivy League campuses are bad enough (there must be a lot of very good parties at these places). What is truly mind-blowing is that all of these organizations, filled with “masters of the universe” types, genuinely seem to think that whatever Harvard and Princeton admissions is doing, it must be absolutely, 100% right, because that’s effectively the only filter they have. If you’re from a selective Ivy, these purveyors of elite jobs think “they must be smart and fast learners; let’s hire them”. From a state school? You don’t even get an interview. What you have accomplished in your four years of higher education is irrelevant; it’s all about where you went to school.
Not only is this mindbogglingly stupid (and, to tell the truth, odd – surely one of these companies should have arbitraged this over-focus on a tiny minority, and gone big on flagship state university hiring?), but also it is infuriating in the extreme. Read it, or at lest the first couple of chapters, which describe how firms filter by campus (it gets less interesting after that): if your blood doesn’t boil, you have no soul.
A last note: try reading this book next to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, or Ryan Craig’s College Disrupted. Both Carey and Craig are of the opinion that one thing that will drive disruption in higher education is that companies are going to want the “best” employees. Eventually, they say, algorithms are going to come along and find those employees wherever they are, at which point the prestige value of a degree from a selective school will disappear quickly.
But reading Pedigree it becomes clear that what employers are usually looking for are people who remind them of themselves. People they won’t mind hanging out with on a long night in the office. People who will fit in. And you don’t need an algorithm for that. You just need an old boys’ club.