Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs

Last week it was revealed that recruitment at the top companies in the UK is effectively based more on a “poshness test” than on qualifications or ability. As former Labour MP Alan Milburn commented, “inevitably that ends up excluding youngsters who have the right sort of grades and abilities but whose parents do not have the right sort of bank balances”.

In Pedigree, Lauren Rivera reveals the same pattern in the US. She outlines the extent to which the “American dream”, the idea that any American can succeed through hard work and talent, is a myth. “Blue blood” as she puts it, is the key to success in the companies she studied.

The book, which focuses on the “holy trinity” of elite professional service (EPS) firms – law, investment banking and consulting – is based on extensive interviews with recruitment specialists for EPS firms as well as the author’s personal experience working in one of them. The book title is based on the term commonly used in evaluating candidates: “do they have pedigree?”

The “reproduction of privilege” takes place at every level. The children of affluent families will attend primary and secondary schools with more resources and almost 80 per cent of affluent students use private tutoring for SATs preparation, compared with 10 per cent of the least affluent, and are thus more likely to enter the top colleges.

At Harvard, 50 per cent of students come from the top 4 per cent of household incomes and just 4 per cent from the bottom 20 per cent. The importance of parental income for admission to elite colleges doubled from 1982 to 1992, and has risen again.

Rivera reveals that the EPS firms focus their recruitment on a very small number of these “top” colleges. They bombard them with gifts and support, each firm spending as much as $1 million a year per college (not counting staff costs).

If you don’t attend one of these top institutions, you are unlikely to be considered by an elite firm. But even then, recruitment is highly biased. The book describes interviews that the author attended. These took place, bizarrely, in hotel bedrooms. In what feels like a throwback to the 1950s; HR plays only an administrative role, there is no formal scoring of candidates on any criteria and judgment is based more on “cultural fit” than on ability.

One banker explained how he gave his top ranking to one candidate after bonding with her about their shared experience becoming certified scuba divers in Thailand. The firms “hired in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners than one resembling the rational model that soicologists typically posit”.

Rivera notes that the trend away from a focus on grades started in the 1920s and 1930s when, in a time of widespread anti-semitism, colleges sought to maintain an Anglo-Saxon dominance: “the emphasis on intellectual prowess gave way to a focus on personal ‘character’, as demonstrated by applicants’ involvement in sports, extracurricular activities and perceived ‘manliness’.”

While the elite now includes a wider ethnic and religious background, “they come from an increasingly narrow slice of the American population in terms of social class and culture”.

At the same time black and hispanic recruitment is not only well below their representation in the US as a whole, but is even below their representation in the elite colleges that these firms recruit from. All these EPS firms have diversity policies and attend, for instance, diversity fairs. However, the recruiters make clear to Rivera that they don’t expect to find any candidates there. Their presence is purely a marketing exercise.

Rivera suggests that recruits from affluent backgrounds are more likely to leave within four years and finds that none of these firms has done any analysis on what type of candidates succeed, or whether their recruitment methods worked.

This book has received widespread attention. While the Financial Times commented that it was “mesmerising … and horrifying”, The Economist promoted it as “a guide on how to join the global elite”. It is a must-read for anybody interested in how the dominance of the top 1 per cent is maintained.

And, sadly, last week’s report indicates that what Rivera reveals about the US is every bit as true here.