Noah Berger/Reuters/Redux

The Accidental Equalizer:

The Role of Luck After College
by edward tenner

The Accidental Equalizer: The Role of Luck After College

The Accidental Equalizer:
The Role of Luck After College

Jessi Streib

University of Chicago Press, 256 pp.

edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Published May 24, 2024


As a longtime Ivy League affiliate and occasional lecturer, I was once bemused by the passion for admission to this small circle of universities, now slightly expanded to include Chicago, Stanford, Duke and a few others. Leading flagship state universities like Michigan, Berkeley and UCLA had always been their peers, if more impersonal ones. But there are more reasons to look askance at the obsession with attendance at the private, elitist universities.

Start with the reality that when schools stopped expanding graduate programs in the 1970s, they stranded legions of Ivy-trained PhDs as teachers in the bottom of a Ponzi-like pyramid of second- and third-tier schools. Moreover, the range of talent of both faculty and students within colleges is typically greater than the differences among them.

Besides, the primary goal for most applicants to the Ivies has always been great jobs. And the benefits of prestige undergraduate degrees in terms of corporate careers had always been doubtful, at least outside finance and consulting. Hence the headline that ran in the Wall Street Journal in 2006: “‘Any College Will Do’: Nation's Top Chief Executives Find Path to the Corner Office Usually Starts at State University.”

That Was Then

The headline, of course, was published 18 years ago, and the times seem to be a-changin. In summer 2023, a widely reported study of higher education and career outcomes appeared to clinch the advantage of what ought to be called the highly rejective private universities. And an intriguing new book suggests the road for graduates of most colleges may be far bumpier in the wake of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jessi Streib’s The Accidental Equalizer is not about graduates of the Ivies or even the most selective state institutions. Its subjects are a sample of students, mostly from North Carolina, who attended neither Jesse Streib’s Duke nor its rival for status down the road in Chapel Hill, but one of the state colleges in the region that offers a more typical undergraduate experience. And her concern is not whether the alums of these colleges are more or less likely than Duke graduates to obtain the keys to the C-suite. It’s whether in this less rarified part of American higher education, economic inequality is reproducing itself as relatively privileged parents pry open the doors to jobs at the most promising companies.

Though Streib never cites the work explicitly, her book is the most intriguing riposte yet to a landmark 1968 paper by the sociologist Robert K. Merton on what Merton dubbed the Matthew Effect. Merton’s article in Science described how superior initial resources could produce snowballing advantages for privileged science researchers while leaving others of equal potential behind. The name was inspired by the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

In a Matthew-Effect world, we would expect the inequality of students’ backgrounds, even those attending the same regional college, to create unequal job prospects. Parents with superior business and professional connections would point their offspring to the most promising opportunities, and inequality would be passed down the generations. What Streib discovered was, in fact, a world far removed from the juiced-up corporate recruitment scene of the elites.

Last year, for example, the Harvard Crimson reported that “a plurality of [Harvard] seniors — 41 percent — will start their careers in consulting or finance and earn starting salaries more than 50 percent higher than the national median household income.”

Streib finds a silver lining in this opaque cloud since the informational vacuum implies that graduates from class-advantaged homes have no advantage in this regard over their less fortunate classmates.

But while the Ivies may reflect the Parable of Talents on steroids, Streib’s anonymous Southern State University represents the solid middle of American higher education — “selective but not elite, respected but perhaps not well known outside of the region.” And the first surprise of Streib’s research is that the businesses — themselves mid-tier — recruiting at Southern State, saw no advantage to higher class ranking or to the recherché extracurricular activities that polish the resumes of Harvard graduates. Nor was there an edge for students with upper-middle-class social skills, private tutoring or coaching.

The companies recruiting at Southern State are — to use the terms coined by the American political scientist Herbert Simon — “satisficers” rather than “maximizers.” Once a candidate demonstrates they’ve met a work requirement, recruiters don’t seem interested in whether they have exceeded it. And with limited time and information, companies seem happy to choose “good-enough candidates” — a procedure that goes by the unflattering name of “the garbage can model of decision-making.”

The View from the Other End of the Telescope

Despite their career-focused education, Southern State graduates seem mired in an opaque selection process of their own. Companies’ job descriptions often provide little information about what employees do every day. How, for example, does the human resources staff spend its time? There is also startlingly little information provided on starting salaries.

Drilling down further, there was surprisingly little accurate information on the companies available to either “class-advantaged” or “class-disadvantaged” graduates of Southern State. In part that’s because some of the companies hiring are privately held (and report little publicly), while others lack wide coverage by the media. It’s also likely that the decline of local newspapers and regional business magazines has eliminated an important source of intelligence on smaller public companies. Corporate websites are generally no more enlightening.

Streib finds a silver lining in this opaque cloud since the informational vacuum implies that graduates from class-advantaged homes have no advantage in this regard over their less fortunate classmates. This is surprising because it seems to contradict the sociologist Mark Granovetter’s analysis. As a grad student at Harvard a half-century ago, Granovetter concluded that most jobs were filled by informal contacts rather than employment advertising and — most intriguingly — through acquaintances rather than good friends. (The latter seem to form a closed circle while the former offer more links to unfamiliar organizations.)

Wouldn’t wealthier, more educated parents be more likely to rub shoulders with corporate CEOs at, for example, their country clubs and quietly gather relevant information? Streib explains that class-advantaged students do, indeed, follow this strategy, but the info and contacts gleaned are generally not helpful.

The good news, as the book’s title suggests, is that there is so much noise in the system that neither advantaged nor disadvantaged students can read the signals, and thus have no way of knowing whether an all-important first job will be a path to Mertonian cumulative advantage or to a dead end. A key caveat here: this is only true in the labor market segment Streib studied — elitist colleges are another matter. Intentionally or not, then, The Accidental Equalizer lends support to Ivy neurosis, demonstrating that job opportunities, no less than educational ones, are highly stratified.

One question that the book leaves unanswered is whether it is possible to move up from the mid-tier companies studied here to the high-flyers through skill and hard work, or whether America’s corporate structure has become caste-like — like higher education itself. I hope Streib will continue to follow her subjects’ careers in the manner of the celebrated Seven-Up! documentary film series that checked in with a diverse set of UK youngsters every seven years across their lives. Meanwhile, the old-school Ivy Leaguer in me respectfully suggests that since there is an ancient Greek word for luck— tyche — tychocracy should join the dictionary of political economy alongside plutocracy.

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