The last day has been filled with commentary about the ways “competitive universities” select their student bodies and, thanks to an intensive FBI investigation, the sometimes illegal lengths parents of means go to, to ensure their children’s spot. We have historically called these competitive universities our “elite schools.” Our American and at times global mythology is that these schools are where the best-of-the-best go. The virtue of the scarcity of the positions means you’ll only get the best-and-the-brightest, right?
This myth that scarcity means excellence drives our self-styled “elite companies” or “elite nonprofits” — and those trying to mimic them — to implicitly or explicitly to use university pedigree to screen for applicants. How many times do we hear a company say, “We have the top engineering/business/legal talent. Folks here went to Harvard/Stanford/Yale/MIT.” This list always features these schools and then, depending on what geography you’re in, will add the local elite: USC, Duke, Columbia, NYU, Notre Dame, etc.
This elitism fuels injustice. As a result, our workforce structures require a potential applicant to have had the influence, means, resources for skill development, time and luck at age 16 to determine their future for the next 15 years. Because if there are only 3,000 positions in a freshmen class and 50,000 applicants, no amount of meritocracy can help you distinguish the difference between the top 10,000 candidates. There are 37,000+ American high schools. You could have an entire class of valedictorians and still have 34,000 valedictorians left.
The two true differentiators end up being luck and money. In a country where the median net worth of white folks hovers around 171,000, 20,000 for Latinx folks, and 17,000 for Black folks, it is yet another way the racial wealth gap gets codified into our American structures.
This week’s news cycle points to obscene bribes sometimes in the millions, setting that 15-year course for some students. But it is deeply and I mean deeply important that we understand that those bribes could be substituted for legal measures like legacy claims, donations to the University, the resources to take a multitude of SAT/ACT prep courses, tutors for the toughest subjects, training for AP tests, access to networking events with admissions officers, and the toughest of all resources for the under resourced — time.
And really, how many folks would blame a parent for using the resources available to them to ensure those 15 years? We have created a structure that incentivizes the cheating and manipulation that money can bring and money is more accessible in some communities than others. At 38 of our most selective colleges and universities, there are more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.
The first step in untangling that structure is for companies and nonprofits to realize that “elite university” is not a competency. Competencies are competencies. No question we need to learn how to measure them and measure them at scale in a way that helps with applicant flows in the thousands. But our inability to do that work and let go of the notion that scarcity means quality is killing our future workforce.
It’s requiring the few candidates from PoC and/or low-income communities that get in to incur massive amounts of debt as a precondition to career success. Not to mention that the very presence of these same people of color often elicits accusations about their lack of merit. Individuals then spend precious time proving their belonging when the people around them have benefited from the legal measures mentioned above.
Last summer I stood in front of a room of Code2040 Fellows to explain the changes we were making to fight for structural change in the tech industry. It was a painful time. One of those structures was not allowing our partner companies to screen for university pedigree. I will never forget one question that came from a student, “But if we’re making space for students with other kinds of qualifications, what happens to us? We already worked hard. Now we have to compete with more people?” This was heartbreaking to me, at 20 this student had already ingested that their ability to play the game made them more/better than students who hadn’t had that access.
That creating access was a reason for fear. That they had to hold on to the amount of elite that they had already gained in order to succeed. It means that from a young age we are taught to make systems that work off of zero-sum logic and that replacing those systems is dangerous to our future earning potential. The inception happens early, silently, and powerfully.
Scarcity does not create more value, it creates scarcity. We are watching as the country struggles with this fundamental notion in a moment when technology and American productivity has created abundance. It’s just not an abundance that is shared with everyone.
During the industrial revolution, unions fought for a certain set of jobs to be middle class jobs. High schools were set-up to deliver those workers at scale. We are now in the digital revolution and we will have to decide if we will allow any force to do the same at a time when the boutique skill jobs are the ones we need most. What is clear is the university system for screening talent is fundamentally broken and a large quantity of companies are still outsourcing our HR efforts to its brokenness.