In his classic “Sponsored and Contest Mobility and the School System” (Arum and Beattie, pp. 22-35) Ralph Turner articulates a central premise of America’s educational system: “Contest mobility is a system in which elite status is the prize in an open contest and is taken by the aspirants’ own efforts.” To understand what Turner is getting at, think about the college admissions game, in which high school students compete for high grades, study for the SAT, hone their applications. Anybody can enter the applicant pool, and the whole process is predicated on the assumption that the best applicants win and gain admission.
The idea becomes clearer still when you think about Turner’s description of the “sponsored” system of educational mobility. In this system, schools aren’t places where students compete to join the elite; they’re places where already pre-selected future elites are groomed. Think about admissions to Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter series as an example. Students don’t apply to Hogwarts; young wizards simply receive an invitation unbidden. It doesn’t matter how hard you work – if you’re a muggle, you’re just not getting in.
In Turner’s account – and in the American popular imagination – our system is heavily oriented toward contest mobility. But every now and again, a piece of news comes along that reminds me despite our belief in America’s meritocratic contests, our educational system has a strong element of sponsored mobility, too. This New York Times article about high school guidance counselors is one such piece of news. College admissions may be a contest, but far too few American students have access to counselors to teach them the contest’s rules. As a result, counselors often play the role that elites play in sponsored mobility systems – picking promising students for special attention, and thereby sponsoring their rise to the elites.
UPDATE: NYU sociologist Mitchell Stevens, who spent a year observing the admissions process at a selective New England college chimes in on this issue: "By the time upper-middle-class 17-year-olds sit down to write their applications, most of the race to top institutions has already been run, and they already enjoy comfortable leads.