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The Meritocracy!

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That’s a hell of an act; what do you call it?

When Ted Cruz attended Harvard Law School, he liked to study with people who had undergraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale or Princeton. “He said he didn’t want anybody from ‘minor Ivies’ like Penn or Brown,” one of his law school roommates told GQ.

That may strike you as slicing the baloney of elitism awfully thin. But a new study has found that Supreme Court justices do much the same thing in selecting their law clerks. . .

The study, which considered 22,475 Harvard Law graduates, took account of three data points: where they went to college, whether they qualified for academic honors in law school (graduating cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude) and whether they obtained a Supreme Court clerkship.

About half of the graduates had attended one of 22 selective undergraduate institutions, and more than a fifth of the graduates had gone to college at Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Both of those groups graduated with honors from Harvard Law at above-average rates.

But here is the key point: Even controlling for achievement in law school as measured by academic honors, members of the two groups were more likely than their peers to obtain Supreme Court clerkships. And most of the difference could be traced to students who had gone to college at Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

They were three times as likely to get clerkships as those who had gone to the other 19 undergraduate institutions when graduating with cum laude honors and 50 percent more likely when graduating with magna cum laude honors. Both differences were statistically significant. (Summa cum laude honors were very rare and very often led to clerkships regardless of undergraduate institution.)

The bottom line, Professor George said, is that the road to a Supreme Court clerkship starts in college.

“Elite law school degrees don’t repair or overcome a lower-status undergraduate degree,” she said. “You can’t scrub your undergraduate degree with a law degree.”

There’s a club and you’re never going to be in it. (Note that the undergrad degrees whose inferior pedigree can’t be scrubbed by attending Harvard Law School include places like Stanford, Columbia, and MIT).

On the more general topic, I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s ethnographic study Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

My favorite detail from Rivera’s research is that she would interview people at elite law, finance, and consulting firms who would say things like “I came from nothing,” and further inquiry would reveal that the person’s parents were both college professors. Probably not at HYP though.

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