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The two Bettys

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Betty Draper

Freidan

James Atlas has a terrific essay in this past Sunday’s New York Times on how the higher education game is generating what he calls Super People — applicants with absurdly hyper-competent resumes, who clearly have been groomed since the age of three to Succeed in Life by their obsessive parents:

Graduate and professional school statistics are just as daunting. Dr. Bardes told me that he routinely interviewed students with perfect or near perfect grade point averages and SATs — enough to fill the class several times over. Last year 5,722 applicants competed for 101 places at Weill Cornell; the odds of getting in there are even worse than those of getting your 3-year-old into a New York City private school.

“Applicant pools are stronger and deeper,” concurs Stephen Singer, the former director of college counseling at Horace Mann, the New York City private school renowned for its driven students. “It used to be that if you were editor of the paper or president of your class you could get in almost anywhere,” Mr. Singer says. “Now it’s ‘What did you do as president? How did you make the paper special?’ Kids file stories from Bosnia or El Salvador on their summer vacations.” Such students are known in college admissions circles as “pointy” — being well-rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. You need to have a spike in your achievement chart.

Of course having a “spike in your achievement chart” doesn’t exactly come cheap:

Affluent families can literally buy a better résumé. “In a bad economy, the demographic shift has the potential to reinforce a socio-economic gap,” says Todd Breyfogle, who oversaw the honors program at the University of Denver and is now director of seminars at the Aspen Institute. “Only those families who can help their students be more competitive will have students who can get into elite institutions.”

Schools are now giving out less scholarship money in the tight economy, favoring students who can pay full freight. Meanwhile, Super People jet off on Mom and Dad’s dime to archaeological digs in the Negev desert, when they might once have opted to be counselors in training at Camp Shewahmegon for the summer. And the privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — “service learning,” as it’s sometimes called — doesn’t come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room and board.

Colleges collude in the push to upgrade talent. “It’s a huge industry,” Mr. Breyfogle says. “Harvard has a whole office devoted to preparing applicants for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” At its worst, this kind of coaching results in candidates who are treated as what he calls “management projects.

”“They’ve been put in the hands of makeover experts who have a stake in making them look better than they are, leveraging their achievement,” Mr. Breyfogle says.

“We are concerned about that,” confirmed Jeff Rickey, head of admissions at St. Lawrence University, whom I tracked down at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in New Orleans. “If they joined a club, when did they join it? Maybe they play 15 instruments, but when they list them out, the amount of time they spent on each isn’t that much.” Mr. Breyfogle is also on the alert for résumé stuffing. “They’ve worked at an orphanage in Katmandu, but it turns out it was over Christmas break,” he gave as an example. “It’s easier to be amazing now.” All you need is money.

Ah yes, the wonders of our “meritocracy,” in which the cream rises inevitably to the top, hard work is rewarded, and the best and the brightest jet from Katmandu orphanages to Princeton eating clubs and 172 LSAT scores!

All this, as Atlas points out, is part and parcel of a society increasingly stratified along class lines, in which the rich get richer, and in the process gain ever-greater advantages in making sure that their progeny have every advantage in the race for those precious slots at the top colleges and professional schools (and from there the top firms and agencies and businesses etc etc).

At the moment American life features a big demographic problem, which is that the baby boomers have all the good jobs, and we’re not going away any time soon. This, more than the current dire state of the economy, is the long-term problem that the education establishment in general, and law schools in particular, must grapple with. It’s one thing to mock the person who “only” got into a Tier Three law school for being unable to get a job (although in fact that person has finished ahead of 97% of the population in the credentialing rat race), but what about the guy who had an A average at a good undergraduate school and a 167 on the LSAT, and finished in the top 20% of his class at George Washington, and can’t get a job? There are plenty of those people now too — because the baby boomers have all the good jobs.

What did that guy do wrong again? Oh right he should have “worked harder” and spent a couple of more holidays in college working on Guatemalan farm cooperatives, and gotten into NYU Law. Except a third of NYU’s third year class is now in trouble, and a lot of the rest of it is looking at big problems three to five years down the road, when they and their 200K loans get laid off by the mega-firms that hired them out of law school. Oh well I guess they should have “worked harder” and gotten into Yale. Because no matter what happens, the thing to remember is that if something goes wrong it’s your fault, or possibly your parents,’ but never ever the system’s, which is fundamentally fair and just if always amenable to some marginal tweaking to make it even better.

Atlas mentions another aspect of all this that deserves a separate essay:

And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week.

“This is your job now.” I think I’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy ending.

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  • My daughter’s about to graduate from a state school with a degree in linguistics (fortunately, two Asian languages under her belt)

    I worry about her. She worries about her, too. Rather than even try at this point to cobble together a life for herself here or abroad, she’s going to jump into grad school

    Not sure for what. Neither is she.

    • Uncle Kvetch

      My daughter’s about to graduate from a state school with a degree in linguistics (fortunately, two Asian languages under her belt)

      If she can acquire some specialized vocabulary in one or both of those languages (e.g., legal, medical, financial, technical, what have you), and she’s not averse to freelancing, she should look into translation, at least as a sideline. There are a handful of certificate programs around the country where she could pick up the necessary skills while investing a fraction of the time and expense of an M.A.

    • Two Asian languages makes a person marketable in just about any field. For what it is worth, even law school would be a sensible thing with that sort of specialized skill, assuming that practicing law is otherwise something your daughter is interested in.

      • Lee

        Lawyers who are fluent in foreign languages are in big demand for doc review projects. I can vouche from the experiences of bilingual lawyers I know.

  • Njorl

    “Ah yes, the wonders of our “meritocracy,” in which the cream rises inevitably to the top, ”

    This is because of the high fat content.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Much of which resides above the eyebrows, as a glance at the recent job performance of our “elite” financiers will attest.

    • R. Porrofatto

      the cream rises inevitably to the top

      So does pond scum, but you’ll never that one at Horace Mann.

  • Njorl

    So what’s with the title and picture? I tried googling “The Two Bettys” but only found a cleaning service and a bakery.

    • NBarnes

      Betty Draper from Mad Men.
      Betty Friedan from, you know, life.

      • Emily

        Yeah, but what does that have to do with the subject of the post?

        • Hogan

          It mostly has to do with the last blockquote.

          • Emily

            Eh, I still don’t get it. Widening socioeconomic inequality seemed to be the main thrust of the post. Plus, I don’t see what either of those women have to do with helicopter parents (I guess we’re really talking about helicopter mothers then, aren’t we?).

  • Well isn’t that just a cold hard kick in the nuts from reality. It’s sad, but it’s true. I read a similar article yesterday about unpaid internships, which in theory are great for bolstering one’s credentials and diversifying one’s experiences so as to lay the foundations for a nice career. The problem is that only those who start in a position of certain privilege and can afford to work for free while still paying the living costs associated with such a venture. The archaeological dig point made in the post above is similar.

    I think what annoys me more about this issue than the issue itself is exactly what the author mentions near the end, which is the ethic that we have that those who got to the top did it all on their own and simply merited it. I suppose we just need to all understand that astronomical debt is part of life and that if you work hard everything will be okay and we should stop complaining and blaming others.

  • mpowell

    Eh, get a degree in engineering and learn Chinese. You don’t have to go to the top college to get your foot in the door and you career will take off once your employer realizes you can remotely manage their chinese design office. Credentialing doesn’t mean very much.

    But if you’re not very good at math, I agree that you’re pretty screwed.

    • bph

      Until a Chinese engineer takes your job cause he works cheaper, this is a great career plan!

      • MPAVictoria

        Exactly.
        Are you willing to work 13 hour days 7 days a week for 18 thousand a year and minimal or no benefits? Because he is.

        • mpowell

          I’m an engineer. This is not a problem. The engineers in China who are actually very good have already applied for and been accepted to a US grad school where they will slowly work their way through the green card process until they can earn a real US salary working here.

          The business management team will always be located in the United States. Even when if the work is done in China they will need engineers they trust and can talk to to manage that process.

          I don’t even speak Chinese and I’m not worried about it. But it would be a great asset to move into a nice career as mid level design or marketing manager.

          There is always uncertainty in the private sector. But it is not as bad everywhere as it is made out to be. Technical skills are really quite valuable, they are just not as prestigious.

          • MPAVictoria

            You are kidding yourself if you think you will be immune to this process mpowell. You are just as replaceable as the guy who used to work in a television factory in Ohio. He was just replaced a few years before you.

            • mpowell

              Well, there’s always risk that your expertise goes stale. But computer programming is the easiest possible engineering expertise to export. And so it is and has been for probably the longest time of any engineering discipline. But the guys at Google and Facebook are still making tons of money. It’s a pretty complicated topic, but you might at least think about what that says about your internal model of how the world works. Not all functions are equally replaceable and this is true regardless of how ‘flat’ the world is in a Friedman sense.

    • 4jkb4ia

      That was what I was going to say–that too many of these kids are chasing too few slots in too few prestige careers. Engineering is not one of them. Medicine may also have a problem that there are too few slots available period.

      But then I thought about Paul’s greater point that these kids are told that all they have to do is work hard. What society needs from these kids is the ability to create good jobs, because many of the good jobs are taken as Paul said. But the relentless pursuit of credentials may not build the skills that you need to create good jobs. If you are really interested in one of these service projects, though, you might end up like the person Kristof wrote about who started the school in Kenya. For Rosh Hashanah that was a lovely story.

      • 4jkb4ia

        Please, Scott, write about baseball–I’m going to be here anyway.

  • howard

    i find it amazing that colleges can justify cutting back on scholarship aid, but putting that aside…

    i want to turn to your last sentence. it is my very strong belief that it cannot possibly be healthy for these kids to be reduced to merit badges for their parents. now how that unhealthiness plays out – will we, for example, see a return to the ’60s where at least a fair number of affluent kids turned against (some of) their own privilege or will we see a rise of quasi-libertarian thugs who have no connection to society at all or something else – i can’t say, but that is no way to raise a healthy personality.

    • bph

      The university I am affiliated with cut

      80 staff
      40 faculty jobs

      this year alone, and is facing a hole of ~$18 million in the next few months.

      So, yea, student aid is down, too.

      Oh and the Vice-Chancellor for student affairs got the axe. The second highest paid admin on campus was fired and the position eliminated.

      • howard

        bph, i’m not denying that the median college is facing financial pressures unmitigated by gargantuan endowments.

        still, the next school i hear about cutting football scholarships in order to reallocate the dollars to general student aid will be the first one i hear about doing that, and that’s really my essential point: in terms of rank ordering cuts, cuts to student aid should be near the bottom and there’s no sign that it is.

    • Bill Murray

      At my university pretty much all non-federal financial aid comes from investment returns, so if they are down it’s because of return on investment

    • mpowell

      Yeah, I agree on the healthy part as well. I have to imagine that this is really a tiny minority of kids, though. Rich parents have been f*cking up their kids for generations, though.

    • The popularity of DIY could be an expression of this. I can learn to knit on my own, and get actual THINGS, not just items to add to my resume, out of it. It’s a very healthy outlet if I’m right.

  • 1) My understanding is that some of those insane statistics on applicants simply comes from expanding applicant pools. It is now *much* easier to apply to multiple colleges than it was, say, in the early 1990s.

    2) SAT scores were re-centered in 1995, which is why an “old” 1200 will no longer get someone into the same school — that score is equivalent to a contemporary 1300.

    3) These “super” applicants are not significantly different than people who made me realize I wasn’t all that accomplished when I arrived at Harvard.

    4) The “class bias” problem isn’t new — the recession has exacerbated it by removing opportunities for application-padding and raising tuition in both nominal and actually-paid terms.

    In other words, this is no different than any other “trend” story at the New York Times, except the realization that class bias is getting worse.

    • BJN

      As a 24 year old between undergrad and grad, The hyper-experienced applicant is a real phenomenon. Kids with driven parents end up with all kinds of extra-curriculars, whether or not they give a damn about them. These things are just another box to check, and as they become more and more of a commodity, the experiences are more and more hollowed out.

      Prestige internships are so regularly cycled that from interview to training to work to exit the whole process is sanitized to the point that nobody is in danger of actually having any “experience” to speak of. Interning in a Congressional office will teach you a lot about how to shut up and do an office job, but very little about liberty and justice.

      My fear is that this whole regularized, competitive experience is more about numbing these applicants to original thoughts and getting the most compliant minds than it is about creating better applicants.

      • BJN: I don’t disagree… In fact, I totally agree. My main point is that today isn’t that different from 20 years ago.

        • BJN

          Guess I just wanted to make a point and your post was the one on screen when I got to it. Would you at least agree that the trend has gotten worse rather than staying about the same?

          • Vance Maverick

            That’s what I’d like to know. The vein of anecdotes here is plainly deep and rich. But what’s the data?

            • old numbers

              Probably based on studies from a decade ago now, but in 2005 the most affluent quintile of the population was overrepresented in enrollment at highly selective universities by a margin of 21%. (They were 36% of very highly qualified students but 57% of enrolled students.)

      • mpowell

        I don’t think there is really an intentional target here. What you have is people trying to game the applications system. The apps officers know about this, though, which is why they are looking for ‘pointy’ kids. Ie, kids with a meaningful extracurricular, not just a laundry list. In fact, how much crap you did is probably less important than whether you can say something meaningful about it an interview or essay. I couldn’t really say if it’s getting worse over time- what would that mean? The wealthy will always have an edge and the question is just whether the admissions officers can continue filtering out all the mile wide skin deep junk applicants.

        All that being said, isn’t it still the case that you can get into the top public schools in the country on grades and SAT alone? I hardly see an emerging emergency here.

  • MPAVictoria

    Your comment about unpaid internships struck a real chord with me. A couple of years back, while I was completing my graduate program, I was given the opportunity to go to New York City and intern for the United Nations. This was a dream opportunity for me and I was very eager to go. The hitch was the internship was completely unpaid. In one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. In the end the numbers didn’t work out and some kid from a wealthy family went in my place.

  • c u n d gulag

    I’m glad I’m not heading off to college now.

    It’s getting way too crazy out there.

    But then, when I finished HS in ’76, if you didn’t go to college, you could still get a good paying middle-class job without a degree, so there was less pressure to go.

    Now, a BA or BS is like a HS degree was back then, and Master’s and Doctorate’s are like a college one was 30 years ago when I graduated.

    As for us Baby Boomers, well, a lot of us were quietely moved aside for younger cheaper models in the last few years, with little or no chance of meaningful employment in our future – what little of one we may have.

    I expect that more and more Baby Boomers will soon be asked to move aside willingly, or else forced out.
    There’s a younger, more desperate work force waiting out there.
    And this is just exactly the desired result, and how it was planned.
    Why else do you think the cost of a college education continued to rise so far above the level of inflation?
    ‘All the better you eat all of us, My Dears!’

  • Lee

    In a semi-related indictment, a few months ago Slate had a damning article about NGOs operating in Cambodia. Basically, they seem to be for rich people to do resume building and networking. They don’t actually do much for the Cambodian people. The life of the interns in them doesn’t seem to involve that much work either. Its a sort of post-graduate resume building for the rich.

    The best way around this problem is to go for college and graduate school admissions best on grades and standardized test scores. This won’t solve the entire problem. Rich parents could still afford tutors for their children. However, the non-rich won’t have to compete with kids whose parents could afford things like working at a day care center in Guatemala.

    • L2P

      If you combine that with affirmative action you’ve got a deal, since so many of the rich are also the white.

      The reason this resume building started in the first place IIRC was because schools couldn’t look directly at race anymore for admissions so they started looking “holistically” at students. I think the idea was that disadvantaged kids would show through in essays and stuff, but instead we ended up with lots of violin prodigies who tutor orphans in Africa while making deep space probes out of waste.

      • Lee

        Actually, its a quite a bit older than te Civil Rights movement. This entire process started in the late 1910s and early 1920s because elite schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeston wanted to keep out Jewish students. The American approach to college admissions originates from anti-Semitism more than anything else.

        • Mark

          Please tell me there is a good book about this.

          • Lee

            There is. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel.

            • Mark

              Thanks!

      • mpowell

        Private schools can still look at race and gender, so I don’t know what you are talking about exactly. If you are talking about Harvard the basic problem is that SAT scores and grades do not filter enough students. And are not really adequate measures for Harvard’s purposes anyhow. Most undergrad schools do just fine with grades and SATs, though.

  • L2P

    “Oh well I guess they should have “worked harder” and gotten into Yale. Because no matter what happens, the thing to remember is that if something goes wrong it’s your fault, or possibly your parents,’ but never ever the system’s, which is fundamentally fair and just if always amenable to some marginal tweaking to make it even better.”

    Amazing how many people can read this and not see the irony dripping off of it.

    I would bet less than 10% of the parents at my kids school would ever say “I was maybe a little lucky” if anybody asked them why they’re so successful, and half of ’em are in entertainment and could easily by waiting tables in Van Nuys. It’s too easy to think that because you ARE working hard, the hard work is all that got you where you are.

    • Hogan

      It’s too easy to think that because you ARE working hard, the hard work is all that got you where you are.

      I wish I’d said that, and I’m pretty sure I will.

      • witless chum

        See also why belief in things like The Secret is so attractive to someone like Oprah Winfrey. She worked her ass off and got to be one of the richest women in the world, that’s going to be a pretty compelling anecdote to anyone about how the world works.

        Just as, I suppose, my own life as a privileged but somewhat lazy child of two parents with advanced degrees has convinced me that who you are is much more important than what you do.

  • TT

    “And the privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — “service learning,” as it’s sometimes called — doesn’t come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room and board.”

    Wow. So, the children in that day care center are not human beings in desperate need of help, not people who should be cared about simply because they are, you know, people. Rather, they are nothing more than wax coating on the “resume” of some Goldman partner’s kid who will die is s/he doesn’t get into Brown. Why not do a hell of a lot more good and send that day care center a check every month instead of your kid for just one, so they can buy vaccines, food, books, etc.?

    Our elites our terrible people. We are so screwed.

    • BJN

      I think it is possible to take this too far. Plenty of people who volunteer at these places don’t apply for Ivy League spots, but honestly want to help people. When you’ve used your education to realize how privileged you are, sometimes you actually do want to give back.

      And honestly, given the choice between two scions of privilege, one who has lived entirely within their own bubble, and one who has spent even a little time outside of it, wouldn’t you prefer the latter?

      And yes, the middle class is getting squeezed out here. Maybe we can come up with a solution that helps them AND Guatemalan orphans.

      • actual pitch

        Join us for our Annual Winter Trip to Cambodia! This winter you could be traveling across the world to not only build your resume and educational background – but also literally, build toilets for rural school children!

        For $3K plus meals and tuition for 3 credits you get to spend a ten days in Cambodia doing some service learning.

        • witless chum

          Maybe we could call it a holiday…

    • Bighank53

      How about getting a flippin’ degree and then helping out folks in Guatemala, instead of displacing a local childcare provider? Engineers Without Borders doesn’t get the name recognition that DWB does, but they do a lot of good work that can’t be done by the locals.

      • Kyle

        Ditto Telecoms Without Borders, who go into disaster areas and set up communications systems to coordinate assistance, connect victims with relatives, etc.

        Going to a disaster area to ladle out food or build huts always seemed, while good-hearted, less than maximally useful — there are plenty of locals who could do those jobs.

  • Ed

    The phenomenon of the mother who pours her throttled drives and ambitions into her children is also nothing new, but at least those women had the very solid excuse of never having had the option of getting out of the house.

    Of course, women with children who try to stay competitive in their careers face their own pressures and challenges, and not all of these contemporary stay-at-home mothers may have chosen to leave the workplace entirely of their own volition. Mothers have always labored under fierce social pressure of one kind or another. They are forever being told what to do and not do.

    It is true, however, that the effects of helicopter parenting are widely noted, and that is something new. Children’s time does seem to be more rigidly managed today. These kids are accustomed to an awful lot of attention of a different nature than previous generations.

  • whetstone

    OK, hang on. Let’s turn to Atlas’s background:

    What is my father thinking, sitting there with his hands on his knees? Is he thinking of his father, a timid man who came over on the boat from Russia with an engineering degree and mastery of half a dozen languages, only to end up running a corner drugstore on the Northwest Side of Chicago? Or is he thinking of himself, not as timid as his father, but somehow not possessed of quite enough of that go-getter quality, prevented by his nature and his limitations from following his dream? What he had really wanted to be was a professional musician, to play the oboe in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But it was the Depression: He needed to make a living, and so he became a doctor….

    So his grandfather spoke six languages, had an engineering degree, and ran a small business. His dad could presumably play oboe well enough to join the CSO, making him one of the best oboists in the world, but became a doctor. Atlas is a Harvard Grad and was a Rhodes Scholar. Sounds pretty Super to me.

    Here’s why I don’t buy Atlas’s essay: not because there haven’t been changes in the process of preparing for and applying to colleges; not because it’s not more expensive and difficult to obtain for the middle class.

    It’s this: “Super People jet off on Mom and Dad’s dime to archaeological digs in the Negev desert, when they might once have opted to be counselors in training at Camp Shewahmegon for the summer.”

    Because it’s the same rhetoric I remember from the late ’90s, when I was applying to schools. I went to the University of Chicago and finished in 2004; my wife just finished law school there with mostly younger people.

    And they weren’t and aren’t Super People: they’re mostly upper-middle-class kids with some impressive accomplishments who were good at some things but not others. The Negev? Sure, I guess. But I had camp counselor friends too.

    And this: “(All we did in college, I seem to recall, is smoke dope and play pool.)”

    Sure you did.

    Atlas is a great writer, so I’m a bit surprised to find him pushing SOP NYT lifestyle nonfic, complete with dippy “Super People” branding.

  • Joshua

    I’ve seen all that. Summers abroad, foreign language camps, the whole deal. I know one person who had a summer internship at an extremely well-respected financial institution because the CEO was a neighbor.

    There is simply no way for a middle class or lower kid to match that. Bob Bricklayer and his kids will never live next to Jamie Dimon or Eric Schmidt.

    The great equalizer here, as I see it, is education – kids who aren’t born into that wealth of opportunity need to get into good public schools so we have a chance to give our kids the type of life they deserve. But the doors are closing there too. I went to a UC, and that system has become a place for upper class white and Asian kids.

  • Western Dave

    Interestingly, we have a kid at my ritzy private school who went on a church trip to an orphanage in Guatamela. She came back an organized an ongoing relationship between the orphanage and our school (including what is now an annual trip) where clothing, school supplies etc. are donated throughout the year. She didn’t go to Yale. She’s at Denison University. I’m pretty sure she’s going to be the boss of all of us one day. She’s already helped more kids than I have in twenty years. Yes, there is a lot of resume padding out there (facilitated for big bucks by outfits like ISL and Rustic Pathways

  • Jager

    In high school I had good grades, played varsity hockey, worked in a restaurant, owned a pop corn stand, at my old man’s car dealership, I detailed cars, worked on the car rental desk, drove the courtesy car, took used cars to the auction every week and arranged the show room. I watched the old man lead 93 employees of all kinds, observed deal after deal after deal, learned basic accounting, parts inventory and learned to fix my own car. Apparently today, that wouldn’t mean shit!

    • JL

      It would’ve meant something at the top-10 university I attended (see my comment below in more detail). There’s always stories about kids doing these crazy things, and some of those kids get in to top places, but there are still plenty of kids like you who get into these places, it’s just that nobody writes articles like this about them. And nobody writes about the crazy-privileged kids who get rejected…or if they do, they assume that the kids needed to have done even more service projects in Guatemala. College admissions consultants have convinced everyone that there’s a magical, very expensive, formula for getting into these schools. It doesn’t mesh with what I saw on the inside.

      • whetstone

        Co-signed. This is why these articles irritate me so. They’re wildly unrealistic, being exclusively about the outliers, and while they’re meant to make people stop and think about the eternal truths, I just see parents reading them, freaking out, and pushing their kids even harder.

  • JL

    When I was an undergrad, I worked in the admissions office at my top-10 university to earn food money. At least at that particular school, admissions officers knew that kids came from vastly different circumstances, and they did not expect kids from middle-income families to have jetted off to Guatemala for a week of service. The idea was that you were evaluated in the context of your environment and opportunities. You were supposed to be exceptional and academically successful within your environment. This was known as “holistic admissions”. I can’t imagine that this was the only elite university admissions department that operated this way.

    They also cared more about sustained commitments…the kid who tutored underprivileged kids in their own town for four years was more valued than the kid who spent a week with their family paying for them to do a service project in a developing country. This being a tech-focused university, though, the kid who invented a cool gadget or won the district science fair might have had an edge over both of them.

    I knew a few really rich kids while I was there – two or three who went to elite prep schools, a guy whose father was a software startup multimillionaire. I also knew a girl who was homeless when she received her admission, a couple of guys whose parents worked in factories in Western Pennsylvania, a guy from a coal-mining family, a guy who grew up in poor in metro Boston’s Winter Hill when it was run by gangsters. Most people were somewhere in the middle. Most hadn’t done expensive resume-padding service projects. These articles always seem a little overstated to me.

    • Jager

      Associates of mine in business are always amazed because “I can talk with anyone”. I watched my dad shift gears from dealing with a local construction worker buying a used pickup to selling a new car to the guy who owned the biggest business in town, he shifted gears flawlessly and never, ever talked down to anyone. Best thing I learned from the old man was his credo, “don’t treat the hired help, like the hired help”

    • The NYT covering the narrow demographic of upper-income New Yorkers and treating their experiences as universal? Never.

  • lige

    I had to check the byline halfway thru the article to check if it was Joel Stein. I’m not sure what that means about the merits of his argument.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    Grim reading indeed, Paul. Hard to digest the fact that for me (a “boomer”) timing was apparently everything. In spite of my severely average academic background & lack of distinctive youthful accomplishments I somehow managed to make it painlessly into and out of a severely average university and — with a few fits & starts along the way — sneak into decent career that’s landed me in a pretty high income bracket. Where I intend to stay for a few more years, despite being Medicare-eligible +1, clinging to a good job that will therefore be denied to some aspiring overqualified much younger person. Selfish of me, in a certain slant of light.

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  • Nathan Williams

    I’d like to complain about the “12 year olds are taking calculus” bit at the end. That’s supposed to signify some kind of overheated, overdriven academic pressure? Perhaps that is the case in our current dysfunctional math environment, but it could be entirely normal with some reorganization.

  • ZZ

    I had no trouble getting into all six of the top six law school this decade as a white middle-class male from a middling undergrad.

    The reason: I had an extremely high GPA and LSAT score. I was not exceptional in this regard at my school.

    All this worry about expensive “Guatemalan orphanage” resume fluffing assumes college admission staff are idiots. They are not. They want smart people who will do well in life. A national science or math prize shows this, an expensive volunteering abroad experience or unpaid Manhattan internship just shows a wealthy background, which finaid forms (or lack thereof) already evidence.

    90% of law school admissions can be predicted based on GPA, LSAT, and race. For elite colleges change that to SAT and add athletic ability.

    At some point the left will need to deal with the fact that assortive mating and high heritability of IQ and conscientiousness is the real cause of declining class mobility in the USA.

    Or maybe not, the right I suppose does pretty well pretending science doesn’t exist. But Paul seems honest and secure enough to admit that very little current inequality is due to rich helicopter parents.

    • I’d love to see some actual evidence on the “assertive mating explains the decline of income mobility” argument. Given the degree of policy sensitivity assorted with income mobility in much of the developed world (both across time and space), I find that very difficult to believe. Even granting the existence of “G” (cf. http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/523.html) and that the causation flows from G to wealth (rather than the reverse), the proposition implies significant changes in associative mating over the last two decades to exercise a larger impact than some pretty major changes in tax, transfer, trade, and regulatory policy. And wouldn’t “associative mating” stabilize, rather than erode, the working middle class?

      • dave

        The logic behind such arguments is always impressive – the USA has seen a massive flight of jobs to East Asia because upper-middle-class Americans are being very careful to only breed with people who are as beautiful and clever as they are…? It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t even exist.

      • ZZ

        You mention things that more have to do with income equality than socioeconomic mobility between generations. I’m only referring to the latter.

        If there is an advanced economy where it is not declining I am not aware of it.

        And of course assortive mating is increasing. The number of selective colleges has greatly increased and high iq people are increasingly segregating themselves geographically, not just high income high iq people walling themselves off in gated suburbs, but also middle class high iq people moving to college towns, state capitals and semi- gentrified urban neighborhoods.

    • At some point the left will need to deal with the fact that assortive mating and high heritability of IQ and conscientiousness is the real cause of declining class mobility in the USA.

      That is some impressive delusion, sir.

  • Karen

    The only thing I got out of this post is that my son, who makes B’s and C’s in 8th grade, has already completely ruined his life.

    • Swintah

      Don’t worry about it. Many economically successful people underperformed in school. See “The Millionaire Mind” by Thomas J. Stanley for more info.

      School’s important, but there’s so much more to life than school.

  • ZZ

    The focus on college admission policies and economic class is misplaced. The ivy league is far blinder to socioeconomic class than the private sector. You have liberals working on a college campus making upper-middle wages deciding things decisions on the college side v. top 0.1% income plutocrats on the other.

    The real injustice with law schools and colleges is they’ve very rapidly transformed from a bastion of the left to the willing debt enslavers of the middle class, this decade’s replacement for Countrywide and WaMu.

  • Lurker

    Coming from Finland, I have great difficulty in understanding how the holistic approach to admissions is fair. It is inherently subjective and prone to errors.

    In Finland, the university application to all fields not involving performing or fine arts is a single short form. Then, the aspiring student is invited to an entrance exam, where they are required to write essay-form answers to questions on the field they are applying to. Depending on the field and university, the questions may be based on assigned reading or simply on the high school curriculum. The faculty marks the papers and those with the best score are accepted. There are no interviews. Athletic ability (outside of physical education department), ethnicity or parents’ income do not have any role. However, education departments require that aspiring teachers undergo a suitability test, to weed out persons unsuitable for teaching jobs.

    Prior accomplishments may play a role: placing among the 10 best in a national science or letters competition (there are five of them: maths, physics, chemistry, data technology and science/letters project) gives you an automatic admission to all universities teaching applicable majors. The same may apply if you have high enough marks in the national high school examination, but even these have been predetermined well before applications are even filed.

    • dave

      Indeed, but this is a national system, precisely what the USA lacks, outside the SATs.

      Moreover, if you think that the marking of ‘essay-form’ answers is an objective process, that is something that we are just going to have to disagree about.

      • Western Dave

        What’s the base-line for inequality in Finland. Holisitic admissions is designed to alleviate disparities in opportunity. The best advantage you can have in competitive college admissions is to be the first in your family to go to college. Again, this sort of resume padding is confined to a really small segment of upper middle class and rich folks applying to the most competitive colleges.

        Most colleges in the US are not competitive. A Finland type plan wouldn’t work in the US because we don’t have a standard curriculum. It’s worth pointing out that many (most?) states guarantee college admission in the state uni systems (sometimes even the flagship campus) if you meet certain standardized criteria.

  • witless chum

    I watched the remake of “The Omen” last night (I have an awesome wife, in general, but she’ll watch any goddamn horror movie that exists.) and I was thinking it wouldn’t have been the total shitshow it was (kinda nice cinematography, I guess) if it had been a satire of overzealous parenting. The antichrist learning chinese at age four is inherently hilarious to me. But maybe Good Omens was all the apocalypse comedy the world ever needed.

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