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Lvies, extracurriculars, and exclusion: Elite employers’ use of educational credentials

Although a robust literature has demonstrated a positive relationship between education and socio-economic attainment, the processes through which formal schooling yields enhanced economic and social rewards remain less clear. Employers play a crucial role in explaining the returns to formal schooling yet little is known about how employers, particularly elite employers, use and interpret educational credentials. In this article, I analyze how elite professional service employers use and interpret educational credentials in real-life hiring decisions. I find that educational credentials were the most common criteria employers used to solicit and screen resumes. However, it was not the content of education that elite employers valued but rather its prestige. Contrary to common sociological measures of institutional prestige, employers privileged candidates who possessed a super-elite (e.g., top four) rather than selective university affiliation. They restricted competition to students with elite affiliations and attributed superior abilities to candidates who had been admitted to super-elite institutions, regardless of their actual performance once there. However, a super-elite university affiliation was insufficient on its own. Importing the logic of university admissions, firms performed a strong secondary screen on candidates’ extracurricular accomplishments, favoring high status, resource-intensive activities that resonated with white, upper-middle class culture. I discuss these findings in terms of the changing nature of educational credentialism to suggest that (a) extracurricular activities have become credentials of social and moral character that have monetary conversion value in labor markets and (b) the way employers use and interpret educational credentials contributes to a social closure of elite jobs based on socio-economic status.