Important lessons learned

So here we are after five years of college conversations, endless videos and virtual tours, real tours, career exploration, AP hyperventilating, strategizing and ignoring strategy, 13 essays, frequent anxiety and unhappiness, a full-ride summer program, college classes in high school, and more in application fees than I care to think about: my kid’s going to the red-state flagship three miles away where I work. Waitlisted at a couple of top schools with major endowments, but most likely she’ll be here.

If the local U were as good as it was 18 years ago, and if it had maintained a similar price given inflation, I doubt we’d have put ourselves through all this. Years ago it was a bargain with excellent opportunities; after decades of state cuts it’s definitely not. But since I’m a single mom with below-median HHI and her grades are good, she’s been offered enough aid to make it a decent deal. (There’s no employee discount.) Since most of the aid is need-based, she won’t have to panic about her grades in order to keep the scholarship, and will have freedom to roam around trying things, also enough money for a summer internship somewhere and a study-abroad summer, and unless things really go sideways she’ll come out without debt. There’s an honors program and she’s in it, but it’s pretty low-stress, too. Also, since she’s not interested in STEM, doesn’t want to be an academic, and almost certainly won’t have $150K+ for grad school, there’s no reason for her to panic about grad school admissions. She’ll probably be going BA → work, and if she does go back for more school, the reason will probably be clearly vocational and possibly employer-funded.

I’m not altogether sorry we went through this, though. It’s been a real eye-opener for her, and a less dramatic one for me.

For her: we live in a college town that’s a last vestige of 20th-c middle-classness, with lots of public everything. The only private high school is a Catholic school – the public schools are fine, so no one bothers (we can leave the achievement gap for another discussion). Recently the city gave me a very low-interest loan so I can put solar panels all over my roof and install other green equipment, we’ve bought electric buses that will probably be free to riders, and people who could drive to work ride them. There’s a lot more inequality than there was 20 years ago, and the racism is now on full display, but there isn’t overtly exclusive anything. Nothing is gated; there aren’t private swim and golf clubs. Her friends are dual-doctor-family kids, immigrants’ kids, single moms’ kids, farmers’ kids, it’s a mix. There’s huge participation in local government, and the local U has an admit rate of over 80%.

So to run up against a system as starkly demarcated by wealth and privilege as college admissions are has been a shock, and she sees that this has effects that last far beyond college. She sees that to get to the elites, you need some combination of wealth, an excellent-to-spectacular resume of a type that comes with a wealthy childhood, and box-ticking qualities that happen to be useful to the elite schools at the moment. While she saw into that world in her summer program – she was the only kid there who wasn’t wealthy – and has read about it, this was shaking hands with the real thing.

She also sees that the elites and expensive specialty programs are feeders into the internship and grad program pipelines to exciting places where a bright kid might want to have a career: newsrooms, federal offices, prestige arts arenas, city biz skyscrapers, research universities, etc. It’s a real societal stratification, and it’s pushed her politics further left.

I’ve told her it’s possible for a kid to go from state flyover flagship to one of these places, but if the kid isn’t rich and doesn’t have well-connected family wherever she’s trying to go, the odds are tough. Either she’ll be competing with kids from elites or she’ll be trying to make something new. So if she’s ambitious, even if she just wants to get out and go somewhere else, she’ll have to fight long and hard and be very clear about what she’s after. I’ve seen that much from the employee side: you get these very bright kids, first-gen usually, they have no idea how to pace themselves, no real clue where they’re going, and no people waiting for them on the other side. All the profs and admins want a piece of them because they’re rewarding to teach and lucrative to show off, and if they’re not super-focused and rock-steady they implode.

As for me, I’ve worked in higher ed for years, went to elites, friends went to elites (some came from working-class families, some started out rich), and I thought I knew the game. But I only sort of knew the game. The “act like a business” idea in a lot of academia is amateurish, but in undergrad admissions it’s a pro game. That’s a tight machine. The way those slices fill, Questbridge, ED1, EA, ED2, RD…that is some finely calibrated stuff. It’s made me question my approach in education. Part of what I do here has to do with first-gen and immigrant kids, making explicit the societal codes that gate opportunity in academia, in professions. Important for the upwardly mobile. But I’m newly appreciative of how tightly the top quintile – less than that, really – have those things locked up again for themselves and their kids, and am wondering if I actually do my students a service by teaching them to do these gavottes. I rather suspect that I do not. What I’ve seen through this process says to me that to an extent much greater than I’d appreciated, the doors to anything on an elite level are closed to the kids who aren’t already in. Maybe what I need to be teaching isn’t “how are you, individual student, going to get there and get in,” but “how are you and your peers going to force them to notice you and take back access to that territory.”


This is a really excellent, thoughtful post. I have to think about this one some more.


I agree with a lot of this post. I might suggest that certain industries/career paths are more open to those from less privileged backgrounds, both socioeconomic and academic. Accounting and computer science, in particular, seem to offer a path to the upper middle class that doesn’t depend on elite resumes and connections. I would expect that supply chain might be a good future bet, too. Top rungs all attainable from solid performance at a decent public university.


I love this. I knew there was a whole game to this and have strived to learn about it and help my no hook son navigate it. It’s only now at the end of the process that I fully appreciate what he was up against.

Our peer group kids had to work their tails off and generate regional, state, or national recognition just to get into the UCs we used to take for granted and coasted into years ago. They are not anyone’s intuitional priority.


Speaking as the mother of a public high kid who managed to “beat” the system this year. I completely agree with this. We are highly educated grads of Ivy or Ivy-equivalent schools, but our income puts us probably at the lower end of upper middle class in our area. In NYC or the Bay area or such, we’d be struggling, house-poor, middle class. All the stars aligned for our kid to happily develop outstanding expertise (requiring about $2500/yr in lessons from age 8, not to mention summer programs) in a niche area that was desired by a top school, along with solid academics and a stellar ACT score. With the help of reading threads on CC, and a bit of advice from friends, including one who did alumni interviewing, and some feedback on essays from us and a couple of friends, kid got into a top school. But meanwhile, I’m seeing his classmates, with better grades than his, perfect or near-perfect standardized test scores, and some stellar ECs, NOT get into any T20 schools, not even T30 schools. Frankly, these kids’ academic ability surpasses my child’s. They also deserved to be at T20 schools - and they are not getting in. They’ll probably be at our flagship state U, in the honors program.

At the same time, from a bit of cruising around on the prestigious prep school threads, it’s become evident that THIS is the path into the Ivies - not because the kids are better qualified, but because of the privileged pipeline from prestigious prep school into the Ivies. If fewer than 0.1% of kids in the US attend a prestigious private school, but they make up over 30% of those admitted to the Ivies, yet their standardized test scores are similar to those of the top grads of public schools, who are admitted at a far, far lower rate, then it’s pretty obvious that the pathway into the Ivies is getting into and attending an expensive, prestigious private school. Paying for expensive private school on top of paying for college is out of the reach of all but the wealthiest families in the US, not to mention that there is the same insane competition to get into the prestigious private schools. Yes, a few kids are launched into them by programs like A Better Chance, but not many.

Seems to me that the solution, at this point, is the response of NYC Jews to the Ivy league’s antisemitic Jewish quota. The smart Jewish boys of NYC of the '20’s, 30’s, and 40’s didn’t let the quota stop them. Their very presence made a public exam high school in NYC, Townsend Harris, one of the best, probably THE best public high school in the country. They then poured into City College of NY (CCNY) in such numbers that it became more than the equivalent of HYPSM in producing the leading minds of the generation in practically every academic field in the US - and both schools were FREE.

I see my state’s flagship state U getting more and more selective, with their honors college becoming as selective as the T20 schools. I see the other flagship state U’s doing the same.
They’re too good a bargain for families to pass up. Even families that could stretch to cover 75K/yr at a T20 private are instead choosing 25K/yr at their flagship state U. And I’m seeing the flagship state U graduates from in-demand fields doing very well in the job market. The fact is, the professors are good everywhere - so many PhDs have been minted that the competition to get a tenure-track position at even community colleges is intense. What one is buying at the top private schools vs the flagship state U’s is social connections, and for the in-demand fields, that’s not necessary.

Unfortunately, students and their peers cannot force top private colleges and U’s to “notice them and take back access to that territory”. The only way to change the system would be if the federal and state governments were to threaten to revoke private schools’ tax-exempt status and public grant money, unless admissions committees were to stop all the favored status admissions - all the hooks, both moneyed and otherwise, and return to straightforward competitive admissions that would stop favoring the children of the wealthy and powerful. However, that would also mean stopping admissions that throw a bone to URM’s and the other presumably disadvantage categories, and return to a long-ago pattern of admissions, no longer “holistic” (the brainchild of Harvard’s antisemitic president Lowell in order to keep out those pesky, smart Jewish boys who were outperforming good old manly WASPy Biff and Chip) but based upon (gasp) academic merit.


I wouldn’t feel too hopeless on this. I know someone who went to a middle of the pack fly over state university (transferring from a community college) and later transferred to HYPS which led to an “elite” job ultimately. The odds were steep no doubt and involved luck, but that’s true in regular admissions as well.
For kids that are driven all paths are open; they will find a way.

As for elite boarding schools, those are so competitive to get in (on a merit level) its effectively pre screening for college, so a higher percentage getting admitted to be prestigious colleges doesn’t surprise me.

It’s the knowledge of what the possibilities are that is required.


Sounds great until you look at the current efforts to abolish exam-based entry to public schools, which are pushed by many people who claim to be in favor of equality of opportunity, but are actually going to further entrench the advantages of the wealthy, who can pay for a selective private school with teaching oriented towards their more able pupils.

It is ironic that in liberal California, we’ve seen private schools being able to re-open to in person classes this year when public schools have remained closed (and still only going back 1-2 days per week for the remainder of the school year).


Not sure where you are getting that information; private schools in SF were closed most of the year. Just in last month, half capacity two days a week, and even then most kids aren’t going.

To add some nuance to this thread, keep in mind that the main reason that wealthy students are overrepresented at some elite schools is that they are much more likely than other students to apply to those schools. Forum member Data10 recently cited some data on Harvard admission rates by income. Remarkably, the admission rate was lowest for the wealthiest kids – those who didn’t apply for financial aid:

Harvard Acceptance Rate by Income: Classes of 2009-2016
<$40k income – 11% (would be 6% without admissions preference)
$40-80k income – 11% (would be 8% without admissions preference)
$80-120k income – 9%
$120-160k income – 10%
$160-200k income – 10% (would be 11% without lower SES preference)
$200k+ who filled out FA – 12% (would be 13% without lower SES preference)
Did not fill out FA – 7% (would be 8% without lower SES preference)

The full post is here.

I don’t mean to imply that wealth doesn’t bring lots of advantages in life (including in the college application process) – just that the odds of admission to top schools are long for pretty much everyone.


In October for the wealthy:

Vs April (and only 2 days per week) for the public school kids: Return Together Update: Cohort Assignments, Spring Break, Vaccination Update - Sacramento City Unified School District

The politico article link wouldn’t open.

I can state that the Bay Area stayed closed until this past month abs even then 25 to 50% capacity. My friends in LA say the same. Importantly these openings are regulated by the covid status of the region so it is perhaps possible that Sacramento where Newsom is is different status.

And it’s the public school boards that decide

“ This comes on the heels of the City of San Francisco suing SFUSD for their failure to devise a concrete plan for reopening schools, 11 months into the coronavirus pandemic.”

The schools say they don’t have enough room to provide the required separation too

I suspect the applicants who didn’t apply for FA generally fall in to 2 groups – applicants who believe they are too high income to qualify for FA, and applicants who didn’t take the time to fill out FA even though they believe they qualify for FA. I suspect the latter incudes kids who didn’t take the time/effort to initially fill out FA because they thought they had near zero chance of being accepted, and that group may be driving the lower acceptance rate.

That said, among the listed income ranges of kids who did fill out FA, low income kids had a similar admit rate to high income kids. Instead of a large difference in admit rate between low income and high income applicants, the disparity in income among incoming students seems more driven by the applicant pool being mostly composed of high income kids, with only a small portion of applicants being low income kids.

The reasons why few lower income kids apply to Harvard, in spite of being near zero expected cost to parents are multifaceted. Lack of information about the FA and not knowing that the college is affordable is certainly a contributing factor, but I think there are other, bigger contributing factors. I do think wealthy persons have a variety of advantages throughout their life that can indirectly impact college admissions. This includes things like being more likely to attend higher quality secondary schools. Attending higher quality secondary schools often results in truly learning the HS curriculum better, having more opportunity for advanced study, having more motivate peers, and having better GCs. This probably partially contributes to why fewer lower income students apply, but again, I don’t think it is a primary contributing factor.

I believe more influential factors include things like many lower SES students not knowing anyone who attended Harvard (or similar) among family, friends, parents, classmates, … ; and not having any pressure to apply to Harvard (or similar) from parents, GCs, classmates, … While Harvard (or similar) are popular colleges among participants of this forum, it’s far from a universally held belief. In many areas, top academic students apply to the local not-selective college, rather than selective ones that are thousands of miles away. And there is no pressure from parents, GCs, peers, or others to apply to the latter. One of my relatives attended HS in rural southern community that was like this. She was the first person in the history of her HS to apply to a highly selective college. If students applied to college, they applied to local colleges in the area. That was just what everyone the students knew did, and there was no pressure to change that. She was accepted to all the schools she applied, and chose to attend a highly selective LAC over Ivies.

I don’t agree about the “elites” being feeders in to all of the listed internship and grad programs. There are only a small handful of fields where attending an “elite” offers a major advantage over attending a quality, not as selective college, such as a state flagship. These fields include things like “elite” investment banking and consulting. In the overwhelming majority of other fields, employers have a very different view. For example, in the report at , hundreds of employers in a variety of industries where asked about the relative importance of various factors in evaluating resumes of new grads for hiring decisions. College reputation averaged as the least influential factor in all surveyed industries except for education (reputation was 2nd lowest, narrowly edged out by GPA) and media (relevance of coursework was lowest). As a whole the surveyed employers said they looked more favorable among applicants who attended a state flagship than an “elite college” for hiring purposes. If you have specific colleges in mind, I’d suggest looking at the employers who attend career fairs and reports about internships or post grad employment.


I would add to what @roycroftmom listed (accounting, CS, and supply chain) as paths to the upper-middle class from lower SES that don’t require prestige:
Most engineering.
Generally most disciplines that require quantitative skills.
Anything sales where how hard you hustle (and your grit, confidence, and people skills) really determine how far you go.
A bunch of niche fields where the top schools aren’t terribly hard to get in to (packaging is filled with grads from Mich St. and a bunch of other schools, mostly publics, nowhere close to the Ivies in selectivity; same is true for building science/construction).

So no, you don’t have to play the same game as the prep school kids. But you do have to know where to play and also have attributes (some combination of drive and smarts and/or people skills).

The biggest challenge for most low-SES kids is that their foundation (pre-college; actually, pre-HS) is often very poor yet they may not even know if it they’re getting straight A’s in the most rigorous curriculum offered by their public school. There are some kids who have the smarts to catch up when they get to college and can buckle down even though they never had to work hard before and despite the distractions of college, but that’s not true for all. IMO, it helps a lot if the parents went to college (obviously even more so an elite one) as they know what is expected at the highest levels. But not all kids are so fortunate.


I mostly agree with @Data10:

To break it down more:
newsrooms: Yes and no. A fancy alma mater seems to help for the NYT but hustle matters to. In any case, it’s a poor-paying dying industry. Start a Substack.

federal offices: Not really. Seems hustle/networking or test-based. Being in DC helps a lot, but most public flagships have a DC internship program.

prestige arts arenas: True.

city biz skyscrapers: Not really outside of a few prestige industries. F500 CEOs come from everywhere because those companies hire from nearly everywhere.

research universities: Definitely not true for STEM and other qualitative fields. And why would you want to aim here anyway? See journalism.

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I can’t stop thinking about this. The cultural assumptions, I mean.

Why would you think “prestige arts” or the newsroom to be a more “exciting place for a bright kid” than, for instance, sales? Sales seems much multi-dimensional. There’s the applied psychology aspect. Usually, there’s a domain aspect (pharma sales must know a little something about what they are selling), there’s the economics aspect (usually), and there’s the marketing aspect.

BTW, I also feel the divide between STEM and non-STEM is an artificial cultural construct. Someone who enjoys and easily learns languages should feel the same about math and CS.
We know it’s cultural because in the countries where math/CS is seen as more prestigious, there are fewer women in math/CS.


Long ago, HYP admissions were even less based on academic merit than they are now. They needed some top academic performers to keep up their academic reputation, even though many of their students came from the SES-elite prep-school pipeline (which was much less academically elite then compared to now). It was inconvenient for them when the top academic performers they did find had a heavy representation of a minority group that they (or those with influence over the college) disliked.

However, the ceiling of typical measures of academic strength in the US (i.e. HS record, SAT/ACT scores) is too low to be that useful for finding the top end of academic merit for a college that wants to find that. Hence, holistic review will continue at the most selective US colleges, even if they sought pure academic merit without concern about hooks, etc…


There is probably significant variation in school buildings. A school with crowded classrooms with no windows is much more difficult to open for in-person instruction than one where the classrooms were not so crowded to begin with and which had plenty of windows to open.

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Isn’t it because more people in these “prestige” professions have the ability to make public statements (whether in the press or just at social events) that other people will pay attention to? 15 minutes of fame and all that.

Likewise being able to say something about space exploration will get more attention than saying something about container ships (at least until the Suez Canal is blocked!) even though container ships are vastly more important to the world economy than space exploration. Look at the list of highest rated employers for graduates (including NASA, SpaceX, etc). But read “The Box”

The ironic thing is that the higher levels of management in some of these prestige industries (like IB and consulting) is essentially sales.


Indeed. But a natural instinct. Dawkins’ Selfish Gene really anticipated this well with his invention of the term “meme”.

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