For many high-school seniors, it’s decision time: Where will they go to college?
It’s a stressful period, especially for students attending top-tier high schools, where competition over name-recognition colleges and prestige runs rampant. Much preparation and conscious plotting has led to this moment: years of hard work, jampacked extracurricular calendars, SAT prep, and more. Students apply to 10, 15, sometimes even 20 colleges, all strategically selected as they hedge their bets on acceptance.
This is, of course, the college-frenzy story that we are all familiar with: the helicopter parents, the ones who can’t let go, who overschedule their children out of an obsessive desire that they make something of themselves. We think such parents are maybe a little uptight, perhaps a bit too intense. But we need to think again. The college-application process is about more than just a prestigious name on your résumé, or bragging rights, or even a great education. Your very class standing depends on it. Getting into a great college is not just a matter of being smart or being a good student. You have to be good at applying. You have to know how to the play the game. And many students—even the brightest ones—never even have access to the rules because of their social class and where they go to high school.
In many ways, then, the college-application process is a testing ground for the transference of social advantage. After years of mobilizing all their class-based resources on behalf of their children, parents are vindicated by the acceptance to a prestigious university. And while attending an elite college is by no means a guaranteed ticket to the upper middle class, it certainly improves your chances.
We spent over a year talking with students, parents, teachers, and administrators at three top-tier high schools, digging deep into the application and admissions process. Walk the halls of any such school and you will quickly learn that admission to a top university is seen as the way you lock in class standing. Selective-college admissions criteria have in many ways become the driving force behind the child-rearing decisions made by affluent parents. They drive decisions about where to settle, which schools to attend, what identities to develop.
Parents, and later students, exploit opportunities and employ every bit of cultural, social, and economic capital to get into the most prestigious colleges possible. They create a competitive dossier that takes into account GPA, level of sustained course difficulty in relation to what is offered at the school, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, and even personal characteristics. To stand out among the sometimes 35,000 applicants an Ivy League college will review, students pile on the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, volunteer at soup kitchens, play sports, and take on leadership roles at school. They do this in order to play the college-admissions game, and they play to win.
It’s strategically done, sometimes in spite of interest or passion: There is a method, and there is a code.
One student we followed, Nicholas—who headed off to Northwestern University—explained, “I took IB, and part of IB was the college stuff. It has good recognition—growing recognition at colleges, and I think that is a way to differentiate myself.” Ask students, and time and again they’ll use this magic word: differentiate. There are other coded words. Ryan—who ended up at Princeton University—stated that he had an “edge” by being both a scholar/athlete and scholar/musician. He candidly informed us how he arranged the display of his breadth: “I ended up doing this for a lot of my essays, playing to my strengths, talking about physics and music.” Breadth is a crucial token to have in a college application, and many students simply throw as much as they can into their dossiers. Samantha, who gained admission to Harvard University, told us, “I always thought I was pretty strong because I have one of the highest GPAs, and I have done a lot more school activities than anyone else, and I have always played sports.” To get into Tufts University, Stephanie maximized her breadth by focusing on her international credentials as a volunteer in Bogotá over the summer before her junior year.
These students exhibit admirable savvy, but it’s evident that all of this focus, all of this packaging of “strengths,” is driven by a force far larger, even, than where they want to go to college. The application process, in the eyes of students and families, is a battleground where advantage is won or lost. And the bad news is that students do not enter that battleground evenly.
There were some lower-income students of color who attended the high schools we studied. But unlike the affluent students, these students had not been groomed for college since birth; in fact, many of them did not consider four-year college an option until they were propelled into elite private high schools through an organization that places academically talented students into such institutions. This group of students did not know the “rules” and had not, up until this point, cultivated the distinctive dossiers that might set them apart in the admissions process.
Lucky for them, they were now at a school that explicitly articulated the rules of college admission and offered the coursework and experiences needed to help them be competitive candidates. Along with admissions counselors with small caseloads, these benefits let them make up some ground. But think of all of their peers—all the smart, talented students—that do not have the fortune of finding their way to a top-tier high school. They are at a serious disadvantage, and all the more so as top secondary schools become better at packaging students for college admissions—as the competition stiffens.
High schools, in many instances, are class factories, propelling some into the upper middle class while moving others closer to a life of low-wage work. It’s clear that where one goes to high school increasingly matters in the college-admissions game. Unlike the traditional Horatio Alger myth, where everyone who works hard is seen to have access to the American dream, climbing the class structure is now a very specialized skill, one in many ways colonized by exclusive public and private secondary and postsecondary institutions.
We don’t deny how hard these students and parents work, but there is something profoundly undemocratic going on in a nation that prizes upward mobility through merit. That class is central to highly competitive college access at a moment in history when where one goes to college is more and more important with regard to future possibilities is cause for concern for all of us. Class warfare is alive and well, and the battles are being waged in classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods.
Author Bios: Lois Weis is a professor of the sociology of education at the University at Buffalo. Kristin Cipollone is a lecturer at Buffalo State College and a postdoctoral associate in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo. Heather Jenkins is director of academic programs and high-school prep at Buffalo Prep. Together they are authors of Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools (University of Chicago Press).