Many years ago when I was coaching squash at Smith College, I learned something important that permeates the work that I currently do in Project Coach. We were playing at the end of the season tournament at Yale, known as the Howe Cup. Our team was made-up of relative novices, who had just started playing squash that year, or, at most, a year or two earlier. Players worked hard all season, and were excited to be competing against others who they thought were at about the same stage of development. However, they had a rude awakening when matched against some other teams that virtually blew them off the court. In several matches, my players struggled to get a single point, and often lost their matches without winning a game. Clearly, my team and I were discouraged by our showing. What we originally had hoped would be an exciting and competitive event, turned out to be a very striking lesson about how unfair life can be.
Being a relatively inexperienced and naïve coach going into the season, I had assumed that we would be competing against other schools whose teams were filled with players at a similar developmental level. Given that the luck of the draw may produce some players with greater aptitude or work ethic for the sport than others, I thought that competition among athletes would still be close, with many matches going down to the wire. Why did things turn out so differently?
I spent some time during the off-season investigating this question by talking to coaches and players from some of the teams that had beaten us handily. What I discovered was a phenomenon that went well beyond squash. Players on these teams were not novices, but had played squash in clubs and/or at private schools for many years. Several of them had been to camps, played in regional and national tournaments as juniors, and some had even been mentored by world-class coaches. One player told me that when she was little her parents had enrolled her at a day-care center that just happened to have a few squash courts. Without intent, the kids gravitated to the courts where they happened to connect with a variety of coaches who worked with the older children. Over the years, they continued to attend the center, and as they grew up they naturally morphed into the developmental program where they were coached, played each other several afternoons each week, and were taken to occasional tournaments. During the years that I coached, 13 of the top 20 collegiate players, had grown up at this club!
This anecdote from my past dovetails with why I see programs like Project Coach as so critical. It is also what Richard Reeves is writing about in his new book Dream hoarders: How the American upper middle-class is leaving everyone else in the dust, why that is a problem, and what to do about it. The essence of his thesis is that we are living in a meritocracy, and that those who have the requisite knowledge and skill are entitled to reap their due rewards. But, the problem that he describes is that the playing field is very distorted when it comes to acquiring the knowledge and skill needed to compete. Like my squash players who were relative novices, and were unknowingly scheduled to compete against much more seasoned athletes, they really could not compete against others with more sophisticated training and years of experience. Underserved youth today are facing the same challenge as they compete with children from the upper middle-class who have many more opportunities to cultivate the array of capacities valued by colleges, and subsequently, future employers. While Reeve argues that we all value the virtues of fair competition in a merit based society, we do not all support providing every child, despite their circumstances of birth, a fair and equal opportunity to develop the sorts of capacities needed to compete.
As with the much more experienced squash players against whom we were matched, Reeve conveys that upper middle-class children have a very different upbringing than those coming from working-class families. In particular, they develop the skills, attributes, and credentials valued in the labor market. By the time Americans are old enough to drink, their place in the class system is clear. Upper middle-class parents obviously have more money to spend on their children and many ways to spend it. But this is also a social fracture. A class is not only defined in dollars, but by education, attitude, and zip code; not only by its economic standard of living, but by its way of life. On average, they come from more stable homes, have parents with higher levels of education, live in great neighborhoods, go to better schools, and have the opportunity to acquire a wide range of skills and credentials from participating in an array of out of school and summer programs. Upper middle-class youth also attend college and graduate school at a much higher percentage than their poor and working-class peers. Not surprisingly, when it comes to competing for jobs in our meritocracy, they are the clear winners. But, how fair is the competition for those kids with fewer resources and opportunities to acquire the sorts of capabilities that would make them viable in such a system? The clear answer is that the deck is stacked in favor of the more well-off. The birth lottery favors some and disadvantages many!
The gist of Reeves argument is that for social and economic mobility to work, those at the top must be willing to give up some of the unfair advantages to which they cling. As he points out, relative mobility is a zero-sum game. A child can only rise in rank, if another falls. Exposing my players to squash at an earlier age, inviting them into clubs where they could train, supporting their travel to compete, and connecting them with higher-level coaches when they were younger would have gone a long way into making their Howe Cup competition fairer. Of course, there would be an opportunity cost for others if this occurred; some of the more well-off kids would lose their places in the squash development system. Something, they and their parents would strongly resist.
By the same token, Reeve suggests a number of things that might be done to level the playing field in the race to acquire requisite knowledge and skill for competing in the meritocracy. His argument is that opportunity hoarding occurs when valuable, scarce opportunities are allocated in an anticompetitive manner: that is, influenced by factors unrelated to an individual’s performance. He differentiates between knowledge/skill based criteria that are used for attaining certain opportunities, despite the advantages that some have in acquiring such, and other less objective criteria that gives someone a helping hand, when they really have not earned it. A specific example of this might be using SAT performance as a criterion for admittance to a selective college vs. gaining acceptance with mediocre SATs because an applicant is a legacy. He advocates for eliminating the latter as a hoarding mechanism. Reeve mentions many other things that we could eliminate to make human capital development more equitable; all of which have financial or personal costs, mostly to those from the upper decile who pay the most in taxes and/or utilize their positions to provide enhanced opportunities for their kids.
Three examples of what he discusses includes:
Getting the Best Teachers to Work at Weaker Schools: Reeve points out that the most seasoned teachers typically gravitate to places that have the best working conditions and highest salaries. Normally, this also happens to be in the wealthiest communities where property taxes and parent groups plow more money into schools. From a public policy perspective Reeve and many others believe that if poor and working-class kids are going to catch up to their more privileged peers they need to attend schools and have teachers who can help them to acquire requisite knowledge and skills. Simply meeting proficiency standards is setting the bar rather low when one observes what wealthier kids who attend well-resourced public and private schools are being exposed. Consequently, providing significant incentives for more seasoned and effective teachers to work in struggling schools would seemingly provide a semblance of equity in the education all children receive. But, it is also probably true that there are only so many superior teacher available, and such a redistribution of teacher expertise would mean a decreasing percentage of more effective teachers working at the better schools; not something that wealthier parents would readily accept.
Somewhat aligned with this proposal is loosening zoning regulations for children to attend better schools. Reeve argues that it should not be necessary for poor families to purchase an expensive home in a neighborhood that has better schools for their children to attend those schools. Here Reeve points out that there is a strong connection between the quality of schools available to kids, and the neighborhoods in which they live. This is partly driven by the culture of the population in a neighborhood, and the amount of money that parents are able and willing to plow into its schools. Linked to this is the notion that a child’s access to better schools is greatly determined by the value of the house in which he lives, and that poorer families cannot afford to live in the neighborhoods in which they would like their children to attend school. Reeve also notes that tax policies put wealthier people at an advantage here as interest on housing loans is tax deductible, making it even more possible for wealthier people to create enclaves that further advantage their children. While not optimal, loosening districting regulations for who may attend a school would help to decrease educational disparities. But doing such would also require wealthier communities to expand the capacity of their schools, and/or require families to send their kids to other schools in order to make room for kids coming from less advantaged circumstances. Clearly, this proposal for educational equity is conceptually understandable, but not something that will probably get widespread support, irrespective of how progressive a community happens to be.
Make College Funding More Equal: Reeve points out that most well-paying jobs today require a bachelor’s degree, with many now requiring graduate degrees. The demographics show a huge disparity between youth from the top economic quintile and those at lower levels attending and graduating from college. The reasons for this are complex, and probably related to such things as parental knowledge and experiences in counseling their children, the preparation and guidance that youth receive from the schools they attend, and the financial resources adolescents possess to support their post-secondary education. While everyone recognizes how costly a college education is, the relative costs for poor and working-class youth are typically greater than for their wealthier peers. Even after factoring in financial aid, poor families pay more as a percentage of their wealth than those from the upper decile. As well, poorer kids are also often expected to contribute financially to their families, even if they are in College. This is not a formula for leveling the educational playing field. Consequently, making college free, or at least lower cost than it currently is, for kids from poor, or even middle-class families, is an idea that has been floating around. Again, this is an expense that will most likely come from those most able to pay the costs, and it will go to support the education of other peoples’ children; something that remains controversial.
Another way to level the playing field with regard to college access is to eliminate legacy admissions. This is a practice that gives an admissions advantage to children of alumni irrespective of their qualifications. As an example, Reeve points out that at Princeton being a legacy amounted to adding 160 points to an applicant’s SAT (based on 1600). He asserts that this is clearly an example of dream hoarding, as it is a mechanism that gives one’s child an advantage, despite not earning the advantage based on merit. Accepting such a student is an opportunity cost in that it means not accepting a student who has better qualifications. If that child is from a poor or working-class family, then their quest for upward mobility may be thwarted by a practice that rewards wealth and the prospects of future donations to the college, rather than by rewarding kids who work hard and achieve on more objective criteria despite the many impediments they faced. While institutions must consider their own long-term financial health, giving up legacy admissions is something that Reeve, and may others support. Whether those who benefit from this practice would be willing to give it up is another question.
Internships: Another critical ingredient critical for upward mobility and future success is finding and being accepted into an Internship. internships are increasingly becoming the route to finding post college employment. They provide a way for a student to tryout a field of interest, and for an organization to assess the future fit of that individual with them. As is normally the case, having connections is very helpful in finding a desirable internship. We also know that more well-off families typically are better connected to people and organizations that can help their child find an internship than poorer families that live in, more isolated, working-class communities. Furthermore, many highly sought internships do not pay a stipend, making it, in all practicality, only available to youth whose family can afford to support them while so engaged. The idea here would be to make the selection process for internships more open and democratic, while requiring organizations to pay internees a stipend that makes it possible for them to pursue such opportunities. Again, enacting such an open process would mean that more well-off and connected families and their kids would need to give up an advantage that they currently enjoy.
While there are several other ideas that Reeve writes about, the essential theme is implementing policies that will help underserved youth to develop capabilities that will make them competitive with kids coming from wealthier families. Just as my squash players were unable to compete with kids who had had years of training, Reeve is proposing that impediments for poor kids to acquire the capacities to compete fairly be eliminated. Some of these entail a willingness by those who are wealthier and more connected to forego some of the advantages that their kids currently possess. Personally, my sense is that this sounds better in theory than in practice. Wealthier people may be willing to provide financial support to programs and organizations that help poor kids, but, for the most part, I do not see them forgoing the array of support that they give to their own kids, even if it means giving them what can be perceived by some as an unfair advantage.
Perhaps, this then becomes another reason for why Project Coach is so critical to the kids with which it works. In addition to training youth as coaches and running various sports programs for younger children, a web of adults surround adolescents who can serve as their life coaches, mentors, and advocates. For the most part program directors, various staff, Smith College students, and graduate students, know what it takes to acquire the requisite capacities to graduate from high school, and be accepted by and graduate from college. They also have thick webs of social and financial capital that can be deployed to help their mentees gain some of the advantages enjoyed by their more privileged cohorts. By analogy, a Project Coach like program was the element that was missing from my squash players’ earlier lives. It is a mechanism that can be deployed to level the playing field for adolescents in need of the sorts of enriching developmental experiences that will make it possible for them to compete fairly on the court, in the classroom, in the labor market, and in life.