Posted by: Andrew | September 25, 2007

Thoughts on admission: Contest mobility and its prospects

Note: this post was prompted in part by a post by Matthew Tabor on a similar topic. While my own concerns are pointed in a somewhat different direction and reflect a somewhat different perspective, anyone interested in the problem of ‘credentialism’ and competition might take a look at Matthew’s site for his discussion as well.
In his recent short New York Times op-ed piece, Jerome Karabel reminds us of the relationship between socioeconomic advantage and academic admissions. The connection between the two, Karabel argues, is hardly dissolving, but to the contrary solidifying:

Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile.

What’s worrisome, Karabel argues, is the fact that the competition for admissions to our leading colleges and universities has intensified, and is affecting families across the socioeconomic spectrum and not just along its lower rungs. As in The Chosen, Karabel renews his critique of our overriding belief in ‘merit’: with the notion that admission into good schools is a neutral process in which the ‘most qualified’ are naturally selected. In fact, admissions processes have become highly, absurdly gamed, such that today even families at the top gnaw with anxiety over whether and how to ensure the best educational futures for their children. Of course, these families have the resources to act on their anxieties, and it’s reflected in the fact that the kids from socioeconomically privileged families aren’t simply coasting into schools on their parents’ backs – we’re not (just) talking about legacy babies here – but are meeting the prevailing standards of academic merit. They’re coming up with high SAT scores and GPAS and compiling the kinds of dazzling extracurricular and service records that college deans and admissions officers salivate over. It’s no big surprise, then, that they’re making it into good schools in spades, while others from the lower socioeconomic tiers rarely do. Still, the competition for status has reached the point that educational strategies now begin at increasingly earlier stages in childrens’ lives: ‘saving up for my kid’s college fund’ can no longer be the only thing one does to ensure his or her future.

I won’t discuss Karabel’s recommendations for a vigorous class-based affirmative action policy or a lottery system for college admissions. Both are familiar, but the former’s never gained a lot of traction within policy circles, while the mechanics of the latter still aren’t particularly clear to me. Apparently, the idea is that schools would select a small percentage – say, 5% – of their students on a lottery basis, choosing from a pool of students who otherwise have strong academic qualifications. These students wouldn’t know whether they were selected from the lottery or not. As a result, all students would be placed behind a kind of ‘veil of ignorance’ in which no one could be sure whether or not they owed their privileged educational status to their applications or to the lottery. I would agree, as Karabel argues, that the ‘lottery kids’ would probably perform just as well as their more conventionally selected peers. But I don’t really see how this will much improve matters – one still needs the strong qualifications to be selected for the lottery, right? – but I’m sure it’s being debated out in other circles and I’ll leave it at that.

For people interested in how college admissions affects social inequality, these are certainly strange times. It’s as if the Matthew Effect is no longer a sociological axiom, but has rather returned to everyday life as a kind of practical imperative for parents to live by and act on lest they and their kids lose out in life. Thus, it’s not enough to want your kid to get into Harvard – you also have to make sure your kid gets into the right pre-school, since that will increase his or her chances of getting into Harvard. And so on.

The point of all of this? We’re perhaps in one of those periods in which we are being confronted by the need to reevaluate our social mobility stories. Karabel repeats one version of the standard story in two short sentences at the very beginning of his piece:

Americans are committed to the belief that everyone, no matter how humble his origins, has a chance to rise to the top. Our leading colleges and universities play a pivotal role in this national narrative, for they are considered major pathways to power and privilege.

This is expressive of what Ralph Turner long ago called ‘contest mobility’: the idea that where one ends up in the social hierarchy is the result of an open and on-going contest. Turner’s 1961 ASR essay on ‘sponsored’ and ‘contest’ mobility, is I think a still remarkable piece, a kind of contribution to the cultural phenomenology of modern education. Briefly, the essay is a sketch (as he himself acknowledged) of how ‘folk norms’ regarding social mobility interlace with educational structures and vice-versa. For Turner, American folk norms emphasize the fact that everyone is thrown into a scramble for social advantage structured as a contest. What matters, therefore, are the fairness of the rules and the degree to which individual participants are not only trained but are also motivated to run the race and in so doing show ingenuity and craft. In England, by contrast, mobility tends to follow a pattern of ‘sponsorship,’ whereby existing elites choose their successors as if choosing members for a private club. Over there, students are subjected early on in their careers to path-defining examinations and tests, and are sorted accordingly to the forms of schooling and training that are deemed ‘appropriate’ to their perceived talents, and which will determine their subsequent educational and occupational careers. Whereas in a contest system motivating people to ‘play the game’ is a chief problem, in a sponsorship system there’s something of an opposite effect: one must learn to be at home with one’s station in life, and not aspire for more or less.

Contest systems look down on premature decisions and judgments -the race is always going on and people should have as many opportunities to participate. In a sponsorship system, however, students are selected for elite membership early on in life, according to their perceived ‘qualifications’ and ‘merit,’ and spend much of their educational careers being socialized into elite life. Their educational credentials are symbols and markers of their entry into elite status – whereas in a contest system, education is just but one tool that can be used by individuals in their ongoing competition for social privilege and advantage. As a result, educational credentials lack the sort of ‘cultural thickness’ that they have in a sponsorship system, since educational credentials by themselves don’t determine a race that lasts over the course of one’s life.

Turner drew the distinction between sponsored and contest mobility in deliberately sharp and stark terms, which he himself acknowledged. Realities in the U.S. and England – both then and now – in fact demonstrate significant overlaps and departures in detail. But what Turner suggests, and what Karabel I think wants to argue, is that the idea of ‘academic merit’ playing such a determining role in one’s future career and mobility prospects is something alien to a ‘contest’ system. In a contest system norms of ambition and reserves of motivation, rather than displays of educational accomplishment, become paramount. There’s a price to paid for this, of course: a relative lack of interest in using education to cultivate cultural depth, a tendency to turn to money as the primary arbiter of cultural values, a lack of fixity to the ‘rules of the game’ (while the contest is always ongoing, rules are always being redefined), and constant problems of ensuring fairness and motivating people to run the race. But the flipside are always-present opportunities to compete, to prove one’s self through concerted and motivated efforts to get ahead.

Whether or not, under current conditions and trends a ‘contest’ system in education can be sustained is an open question. Instead, a speculation: we might be heading into an educational system in which ‘merit’ is used in increasingly earlier stages of life to determine educational and occupational futures, in a manner akin in structure if not spirit to a ‘sponsorship’ system. And/or, we might also be seeing simultaneously the rise of an educational pattern in which a kind of contest persists, but under the reworked condition that one no longer rely on ‘ingenuity’ and ‘craft’ – or more prosaically, demonstrations of ability – but must instead go back to school, even at advanced stages of life, to pursue more training and obtain more credentials to show that one ‘merits’ whatever advantages and benefits are being pursued. In either case, perhaps the primary ‘victor’ of the race is the educational system itself.


  1. I subscribe to a meritocratic system with admissions [and most everything] – I’m not especially supportive of synthetic attempts to affect social justice via college admissions. They don’t work and, as Claude Steele and others have suggested, they often do a disservice to those who are supposed to benefit.

    Simply put, equality of opportunity, yes – guaranteeing an equal result, no.

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