‘The Game Is Rigged,’ but Not the Way Elizabeth Warren Thinks

by Jim Geraghty

“The game is rigged,” declared Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard University Law School professor who claimed Native American ancestry and minority status in professional directories.

Yes, she’s right that the game is rigged, but she’s off-base in her assessment of how it’s rigged. The Economist recently ran a cover story entitled, “America’s new aristocracy: Education and the inheritance of privilege.”

There’s no doubt this is going to be one of the preeminent themes in the 2016 elections — the traditional path to the good life blew up in the Great Recession, and Americans are left scrambling for a new way to find a good job, live in a good home, know that their kids are being prepared to succeed once they’re grown, and have a little something saved for retirement. Ever since the passage of TARP, when the federal government loaned gobs of money to the some of the richest figures in the country to save them (and us) from the consequences of their bad judgment, Americans have suspected that the elites’ top priority is to take care of their own.

A serious assessment of our “new aristocracy” would require a hard look at two realms, each one allied with one of our major parties. On one side, the liberal-dominated world of higher education has turned itself into the exorbitantly expensive entry gate to the middle class, setting aside quite a few slots for the offspring of current elites.

Evan J. Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote in the New York Times last year:

Public and private colleges routinely give preferential treatment to children of alumni . . . 

For “legacies,” the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. Reviewing admission data from 30 top colleges in the Economics of Education Review, the researcher Michael Hurwitz concluded that children of alumni had a 45 percent greater chance of admission. A Princeton team found the advantage to be worth the equivalent of 160 additional points on an applicant’s SAT, nearly as much as being a star athlete or African-American or Hispanic.

At Harvard, my alma mater, the legacy acceptance rate is 30 percent, which is not an unusual number at elite colleges. That’s roughly five times the overall rate.

The disparity is so great it makes the most sense to conceptualize college applications to elite colleges as two separate competitions: one for children whose parents are legacies, the other for children whose parents aren’t.

And the non-legacy students aren’t much more diverse in terms of backgrounds:

Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heart-warming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.

. . . In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be.

But after college, the problem of hereditary elites is exacerbated by the decision-making of America’s top businesses, corporations, and private enterprises.

The Economist article points to research by Lauren Rivera of the Kellogg School of Management indicating that law firms, investment banks, and consulting firms tend to hire applicants from well-known universities who were already “culturally similar” to the institution. “Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles. Concerns about shared culture were highly salient to employers and often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity.” In other words, if you don’t remind the elite employer making the hiring decision of himself, you’re less likely to be hired for the big job.

This isn’t even getting into the blatant examples of nepotism on the part of political or business elites.

Republicans probably aren’t eager to see government officials or politicians telling law firms, investment banks, and consulting firms whom they ought to hire. And Democrats’ approach to higher-education reform is probably best symbolized by Hillary Clinton charging the University of Nevada–Las Vegas $225,000 to give a speech in which she lamented the cost of tuition and declared, “Higher education shouldn’t be a privilege for those able to afford it.” The wife of a president, whose daughter entered one high-status job after another, is not going to lead a national crusade against American elites’ culture of nepotism.

The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.