Lauren Rivera, Northwestern

Milestones as Merit: Gatekeeping and Inequality in Elite Early Childhood Admissions
Lauren Rivera


Fall 2022
Lecture Time: 
Friday, September 16, 2022 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm
Lecture Location: 

R0240, Ross School of Business, Lower Level

Introduced By: 
Laurel Detert


Research on culture and inequality demonstrates that class-based signals acquired during childhood are crucial mechanisms of class reproduction, yet children themselves are relatively undertheorized in this literature. Work tends to portray children from a given social class as culturally homogenous, downplaying within-class differences. In this article, we center children—and their perceived differences—through analyzing a high-stakes gatekeeping interaction relevant to class reproduction: admission to the country’s most elite private (“independent”) (pre)K-12 schools. These schools serve as expressways to elite colleges but admit the bulk of students during the early childhood years. Through an interview-based study of admissions officers at elite independent schools, we find that these educational gatekeepers drew strong distinctions between economically privileged children on the basis of the bodily and behavioral signals they displayed in interaction. Integrating Bourdieu’s work on embodied cultural capital with Goffman’s work on impression management, we argue that gatekeepers favored children whose displays of interactional signals consistently conformed to class-based ideals of merit and lacked markers of stigma. Our findings highlight that, while parents’ knowledge and actions matter for procuring educational and social advantages for children, so do children’s perceived characteristics and behaviors, which can vary within a given class. In addition, our findings call attention to the importance of studying the activation and perception of cultural capital in gatekeeping interactions.

Recording & Additional Notes

Lauren Rivera is an expert on workplace personnel practices, with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She has written extensively on hiring and promotion practices in elite professional service firms. Her award-winning book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs (Princeton University Press) investigates hiring decisions for top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms. She is currently working on a variety of projects examining discrimination in public and private education. Her research has been featured in the Atlantic, Economist, Financial Times, Fortune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and NPR. In recognition for her work, Professor Rivera received the American Sociological Association's William Julius Wilson Early Career Award. She has been named a top business school professor by Poets & Quants and a rising management star by Thinkers50. She received her B.A. in sociology and psychology from Yale University and her Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University. She previously worked at and Monitor Deloitte.