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Downward Mobility

In response to:

Class Dismissed from the March 7, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

I wonder whether Andrew Hacker hasn’t missed a link in his piece on the class system [NYR, March 7]. He observes that most corporate chief executives aren’t graduates of elite colleges; also he notes that the people whose incomes have risen most rapidly in the last generation are doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. My guess is that these two phenomena are related.

Ivy League graduates tend to go into the professions and avoid big corporations. In the Western nations, there is a longstanding tradition that the most elite universities train people to become professionals rather than businessmen. Because status is a function of money in the United States more than it is in Europe, a custom has evolved in the American universities in which the tradition of professional training is upheld, but skewed toward the high-paying professions, rather than fields like academia, the ministry, and the civil service. Ivy League students see that the risk-reward ratio is much more favorable to them in the professions than in corporations. If you go to an elite law school, you are virtually assured of an income well into the six figures, and you can choose the city where you will spend your adult life. If you become a management trainee for Union Carbide, you might wind up making big money or you might not, and you may also have to move constantly.

Hacker says, “If anything, downward mobility has been increasing. Think of all those Princeton graduates who won’t be heading banks.” But the truth could be that if the Princeton graduates aren’t heading banks, it’s because they by and large aren’t entering banking (which pays much less than investment banking). Instead they’re becoming doctors and lawyers, and they may well be making more money than they would have as bankers or corporate divisional vice-presidents. In other words, the Ivy Leaguers who are absent from Hacker’s list of corporate chief executives and the professionals who dominate his list of the newly rich are, I’d guess, the same people—which, if true, would imply that success is more a sure thing for graduates of elite colleges than he suggests.

Nicholas Lemann
Pelham, New York

Andrew Hacker replies:

Nicholas Lemann is correct in saying that comparatively few Ivy League graduates choose careers in national corporations. As he says, many more prefer the professions. Nor are they necessarily the highly paid fields, as he implies. There is reason to believe that a disproportionate number enter journalism, publishing, scientific research, and academic life.

Even so, today’s economy is less awed by an elite degree. I have been keeping track of my own Amherst classmates, as well as the Cornell students whom I taught for many years. The vast majority end up in very middling positions, whether judged by financial success or other forms of distinction. And they are being passed by other people. Among those now being promoted to partner in law firms and investment houses, higher proportions than in the past started out at non-ivied institutions.

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