Measurable Virtues QOTD: Stevens on the Reproduction of Privilege through Admissions

Admissions at elite colleges and universities is a rigged game. More specifically, it is a game with various ways to score points, and so parents with the resources to help their kids score those points find ways to do so. Mitchell Stevens sums this process up nicely in the introduction to his excellent, recent work on admissions at an elite (but not super elite) liberal arts school:

The goals and standards most explicitly depicted in the attributes elite colleges say they are looking for in applicants: measurable academic and athletic ability, demonstrated artistic accomplishment, and formally recognized philanthropic service.

Affluent families have a big advantage in meeting these goals and standards because they have relatively more resources to invest in doing so. Keenly aware of the terms of elite college admission, privileged parents do everything in their power to make their children into ideal applicants. They pay for academically excellent high schools. They shower their children with books and field trips and lots of adult attention. They nurture athletic talent through myriad youth sports programs. They encourage and fund early glimmers of artistic interest. They channel kids with empathic hearts toward exotic and traceable forms of humanitarian service. In the process of doing all of this, affluent families fashion an entire way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children. (15)

Two quick thoughts to what is otherwise a pretty self-explanatory passage. First, this passage illuminates nicely the rationale behind the various activities that Hilary Levey examines in her work on highly-competitive children’s activities. The point is not to raise children who will have careers in dance, soccer, music or chess, but rather to produce formally recognized, measurable accomplishments. Second, and related, the “measurable” bit is particularly interesting. We tend to jump to thinking about SAT and GPA when discussing measurable traits used in admission, and for good reason (especially given the emphasis on those traits in evaluations of schools by rankings agencies and internal metrics). But beyond helping their kids with these academic measures, well-resourced parents are also good at helping their children find formal recognition for less obvious talents (joining the chess club and competing in chess tournaments, submitting poetry to magazines, serving in a larger, well-respected organization rather than simply helping out at school or church, etc.). In other words, well-resourced parents are good at making their children’s talents legible to admissions’ committees.



  1. Andrew

     /  May 25, 2011

    hey dan, do sociologists ever explicitly frame SAT’s and other examinations such as the AP, GRE, and others as an indicator of possessing cultural capital?

    it not, it seems to me that the phenomenon of blacks and latinos who have high GPA’s usually having low SAT and other scores would be explained a lot by cultural capital framework: the wording and topics the tests are on are ones in which those of high socioeconomic status would be very familiar with

    • Andrew, good question. I’m not an expert in this area by any means (though I’m starting to do my homework), so I can’t say for sure. What I usually see is a discussion of how cultural capital (along with economic) makes it possible for some students to do better on their SATs (and in their classes) – they know how to ask for help, have time to go to study sessions, money to hire tutors, have family and friends who have taken the course or test before, etc. So, in a sense you could see SATs as an indicator of cultural capital – but a noisy one, as intra-family differences would suggest that students with very nearly identical resources have different levels of success on the test. And certainly there is an extensive discourse on sources of the racial disparity in SAT scores, and sociologists definitely point to cultural explanations for those differences.