Wealthy people never realize how much luck played in their ‘success’

Jason England, former admissions dean at Carnegie Mellon University, has drawn from his own experiences to add to what the recent college admissions scandal tells us about the attitudes of the elites. He provides the other bookend of the view provided by Caitlin Flanagan, a counselor at an elite prep school, where the process begins. He points out what should be obvious to everyone about the ways in which the system operates to provide an immense advantage to the already privileged. It is an are excellent article that is well worth reading in full because it exposes from the inside how the system is so heavily rigged in favor of wealthy white males from private schools. The true genius of the system is that the levers of privilege operate so smoothly and invisibly that they seem natural and neutral in their application.

Here some key quotes.

The mechanisms of affirmative action for wealthy white people are so well-oiled that few would know to name it. The process begins well before college: It’s societal and holistic and reaches beyond clichéd talking points about donated buildings and the influence of celebrity and prestige.

Private schools create applicants who are difficult to reject. The candidate is “prepared” (the assumption is that private schools’ courses are more rigorous), has a relatively high SAT score (a reflection of parents’ incomes and education levels), and is touted by carefully crafted recommendation letters from counselors who have many fewer students and far more resources than their public school counterparts.

The process at my college (and many elite liberal arts schools) was particularly brutal to qualified women. We simply had more qualified women than men in the pool; to keep a gender balance on campus, many ended up in the rejection pile. (Rarely do you hear people debate this form of affirmative action.)

Any admissions officer worth their position knows rankings like the US News & World Report Best Colleges list are capitalistic undertakings rooted in junk science.

The truth is, at least half the incoming class at one elite college is utterly interchangeable with half the class at colleges ranked several slots above and below.

I spoke to Doron Taussig, a visiting assistant professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College, who is writing a book about perceptions of meritocracy. He said, “Our cultural standards for what it means to earn or deserve something are extremely subjective and flexible, probably necessarily so. This means that when people tell stories about how they got to where they are and what merit had to do with it, most of us can conclude whatever we want.”

In other words, it’s difficult to get anyone to acknowledge the luck of birth and circumstance. To do so undermines a key cog in the American dream machine: the myth of the self, which reduces wealthy children’s built-in advantages to irrelevant biographical footnotes, while transforming others’ disadvantages to personal faults. It’s difficult to get those on the short end of the stick to see that diligence and acumen can take you only so far; they internalize failure or seek out scapegoats (“the black kid stole my spot”).

He describes one case that finally persuaded him to throw in the towel and leave.

My final year in admissions, the way we treated an applicant broke my heart. I interviewed her in my office and was struck by her depth, self-effacing humor, drive, maturity, and critical thinking. She had two working-class parents without advanced degrees and grew up in an economically depressed region of western Massachusetts. She had the grades and the extracurricular activities, but her scores were 70 points below our median.

During our committee session, I gave an impassioned speech on her behalf, which might account for the four votes I got in her favor. I’d never advocated so desperately and enthusiastically for a student. She was precisely the sort of person who would reach our campus, take full advantage of the resources she’d been lacking throughout her life, and contribute both socially and academically. Unfortunately, five colleagues still voted against her. Her case helped see me out the door.

Any reasonably self-aware person who has been fortunate enough to achieve what passes for success in a capitalistic system (usually measured in terms of money and job status) should be able to easily identify the many instances that luck played in getting them to where they are, accidents of birth being key ones. It may seem astonishing how blind they are to these factors but not when one realizes that the blindness serves to buttress a comforting narrative enabling them to look down on others who are not as lucky and justify the rampant inequality in society.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    to keep a gender balance on campus, many [women] ended up in the rejection pile


    Seriously -- what possible reason have you for “keeping a gender balance”? That DEFINITELY didn’t (and possibly doesn’t) happen at universities in the UK. At my first university in 1987 women were like bloody unicorns -- I’d say the campus had three or four males to every female. That was a lot to do with the course profile -- heavy on engineering and science, none of the social sciences or arts that attracted larger numbers of female applicants. One of my schoolfriends did languages at a uni where there were three women for every bloke. I know nothing of this “gender balance on campus” of which you speak. Can’t see why anyone would think it mattered unless they viewed the uni primarily as a place where people hooked up/found a spouse. Oh, wait…

  2. Jazzlet says

    When I went to my UK university in 1979 we were told that there was one woman for every four men, like sonofrojblake’ university it was the result of the course mix along with the low numbers of women doing the engineering subjects in particular. One learnt very quickly not to go to a male floor party.

  3. Mano Singham says

    In the US, at least as far as the more elite ones that can afford to be selective are concerned, universities strive to get a student body that reflects the population at large in the belief that students want a diverse body of peers and that it is good for young people to share in the life experiences of others who may not be like them.

    So the ideal student body would contain a mix of genders, ethnicities, domestic-international, urban-rural, extracurriculars, and so on. The universities have a baseline of academic measures that all must meet but beyond that they look at all these other factors as well in considering whom to admit.

  4. says

    Given that universities admit students for sports, they should shut the fuck up and stop pretending to be at all concerned about representation or fairness. They’ve made a mockery of those already.

  5. says

    What about dance programs then? (Which are near and dear to my heart)
    We have one local dancer who is a retired professor. His movies of folk dancing in the Balkans
    are being used by graduate students back there now.

  6. Mano Singham says

    robertbaden @#6,

    My university is seen as being strong in science and engineering which meant that students interested in the arts, humanities, and fine arts would tend not to apply or accept admission. The university also wanted to be seen as a national and international university and not one that catered mainly to students in Ohio.

    Hence the admissions office would try to increase the numbers of students expressing interest in arts, humanities, and fine arts, as well as students from out of state. This kind of balancing is not at all uncommon in American univseririea.

  7. says

    There are many people who will tell you, “You make your own luck”. And every single one of them just happened to find a good-sized chunk ready-made one day.

    The simple fact is, all the hard work in the world will get you nowhere without the right lucky break.

    I’ve been working at my dream job for nearly 17 years; but I am fully aware that I only ever managed to get it by sheer, random chance.

  8. rockwhisperer says

    Hell yes, achievement is fueled by luck. I declare that as someone who lives a really comfortable upper-middle-class life, and might be considered rich except for where I live in Silicon Valley. So, maybe I’m just not rich enough to deny luck. The primary source of income is my husband’s pay, which is suitable for a high-skilled engineer working for a successful but little-known company. There’s no denying that Husband is extremely skilled and exceptionally knowledgeable. But he was also lucky in his choice of study; lucky that he could balance work and studying to graduate in four years and pay most of his way; lucky in finding jobs where and when he did; and together we were very lucky in some of the financial choices that we made.

    My own achievements have not been financial, but I’m also, when I think about it, kind of shocked at how much luck has come my way in life.

    The inability to recognize luck in one’s life diminishes one as a person.

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