Why getting into a good college doesn't level playing field

When students of modest means do get into good schools, they are still not on a level playing field. Many think that grades alone are the key to success and spend less time on elite extracurricular activities than their more affluent peers. 

Gregory Bull/AP
Venue crew member Bill Guest works on a squash court for the Pan Am Games in Toronto on July 8, 2015.

Inequality was largely absent as an issue in the last presidential campaign, but it’s cropping up in the current one. Republicans and Democrats alike are talking about the gap between rich and poor, although with different assumptions and prescriptions. It’s a valuable discussion to have. While wealthy investors and educated professionals are doing great, most people are struggling with weak growth in wages. Millions worry that their children will be worse off than they are. Political leaders need to figure out to make thing better, or at least stop making things worse.

But there are limits on what the federal government can do.

One illustration of this point comes in Lauren A. Rivera’s new book "Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs." When it comes to college, she explains, inequality of opportunity extends far beyond the ability to foot tuition bills. “Upper- and upper-middle-class parents are more likely to know that enrolling their children in structured leisure activities pays off in selective college admissions and beyond than are working- and lower-middle-class families.” For instance, admissions officers and corporate recruiters like to see participation in elite sports such as squash, which poor kids do not play – or even know about.

When students of modest means do get into good schools, they are still not on a level playing field. Mistakenly thinking that grades alone are the key to success, they tend to spend less time on extracurricular activities than their more affluent peers. “Ironically, working class students’ focus on academics (rather than social or extracurricular activities) while in school constrains, not expands, the types of jobs and incomes available to them when they graduate."

Even if wise academic advisers clue them in about getting the “right” extracurricular credentials, they remain a step behind. “This is because simply knowing this rule of the hiring game in insufficient for passing résumé screens. Students need to have evidence of participation, and real material constraints (e.g., joining fees, equipment costs, time away from paid work, and forgone wages) limit their involvement.”

Rivera’s sharp and depressing observations hit home for me. As a first-generation college student, I focused on academics and shunned any activity that would cut into study time. Unpaid summer internships were not an option. Like most people in my situation, I had to make money during the summer by working blue-collar jobs: usher, painter, milkman, janitor. I was really good at mopping floors and scraping gum off desks, but such skills are not great résumé material.

Fortunately, I chose a career path in academics, where scholarly achievement does matter more than outside activities.  (If you have been to college, you have probably gathered that faculties do not choose their members for their social polish.) Had I gone for business or another profession, I would have been bewildered to see peers with lower grades get better jobs.

Although the federal government can – and should – improve educational opportunities, it is hard to see how acts of Congress can reduce the kind of disparities that Rivera describes. Rather, it is up to college teachers and administrators to be aware of the problem and open some of the closed doors. (My own college has an excellent program of sponsored internships.) Life may be unfair, but higher education shouldn’t make it more so. 

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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