The Rug Rat Race

Paradoxically, the children of affluent parents are less happy than those of the poor.

childhood-stress-schoolRebecca J. Rosen notes the paradox that the children of affluent parents are less happy than those of the poor. The explanation is not shocking:

It’s because the competition for a place among the country’s well-off is so vicious. To secure one of those spots, kids must gain admission to a relatively small number of elite colleges and universities, which “essentially did not grow but rather became increasingly selective” since the 1970s. (By contrast, in Canada, where higher education “lacks a steep prestige hierarchy,” the admissions competition is less dire.)

In part, this is because of what sort of people make up America’s elite today: not the owners of family businesses but professionals with impressive educations. Family businesses are heritable; education, by contrast, is not. No matter how successful parents are, their kids have to earn their own way in (albeit, of course, with the incredible advantages that come from having highly educated, well-off parents). As sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman put it in an interview with Jessica Grose at Slate, “If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or MBA—you can’t pass those on to your kids.”

All of this results in what the economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly termed “the rug rat race.” As they wrote in a 2010 paper, “The increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, which takes the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.” In their findings, the rug rat race takes place primarily among the most educated parents, because there simply aren’t enough spots at elite schools for less-educated parents to even really have a shot, especially as the competition accelerates. It’s for this reason that the most educated parents spend the most hours parenting, even though they are giving up the most in wages by doing so.

This intense competition does more than serve as a giant sieve for college admissions; it is also a intensive training process for the actual skills that it takes to succeed at the upper echelons of the American economy. As one soccer parent told Friedman during her research on parenting in such a competitive culture, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Friedman concludes, “Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.”

That education isn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game is irrelevant because the perception is that getting in to a handful of name brand universities—which are in turn the way to get into name brand graduate and professional schools—is the ticket to success. This, in turn has, led to competition to get into the best preschools, the best private preparatory academies, the most prestigious extracurricular activities, etc. And kids that are burdened by homework early in elementary school and whose afternoons and weekends are filled with scheduled activities from the earliest ages. Essentially, we’re robbing our kids of their childhood and making ourselves miserable to boot.

While the obvious answer is to just say no to the rat race, there’s enormous pressure on parents to join in. This, despite some strong evidence that the game isn’t nearly as important as it seems.

Last year, a Time report by that name argued ”It Doesn’t Matter Where You Go to College.”

Today, whether you go to college retains some importance in your employment options. But where you go to college is of almost no importance. Whether your degree, for example, is from UCLA or from less prestigious Sonoma State matters far less than your academic performance and the skills you can show employers.

Research on the impact of college selection has focused on comparing the earnings of graduates of different colleges. In 1999, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale published a widely read study that compared the earnings of graduates of elite colleges with those of “moderately selective” schools. The latter group was composed of people who had been admitted to an elite college but chose to attend another school.

The economists found that the earnings of the two groups 20 years after graduation differed little or not at all. A larger follow-up study, released in 2011 and covering 19,000 college graduates, reached a similar conclusion: whether you went to Penn or Penn State, Williams College or Miami University of Ohio, job outcomes were unaffected in terms of earnings.

NYT columnist Frank Bruni put out a book-length version of the argument in March and touted it in a series of pieces for the paper. In the first, he argued,

But for too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling.

What madness. And what nonsense.

FOR one thing, the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience — the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.

In any case, there’s only so much living and learning that take place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

Midway through last year, I looked up the undergraduate alma maters of the chief executives of the top 10 corporations in the Fortune 500. These were the schools: the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A & M; the General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University); the University of Kansas; the University of Missouri, St. Louis; and Dartmouth College.

WaPo and others touted the message arguing that brains and grit mattered more than pedigree. Alas, focusing only on the Fortune 10 is a really stupid measure. As The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson notes,

It matters where you go to college, plain and simple. Graduates of the most-select colleges often earn more than graduates of less-select public universities, who are employed at higher rates than those of community colleges, who get more calls from potential employers than graduates of online universities. A world where 44.8% of billionaires, 55.9% of [Forbes‘s most] powerful women, and 85.2% of [Forbes‘s most] powerful men” attended elite schools is not a place where college doesn’t matter.


Of course, there’s a chicken-egg problem here:

College acceptance and future success are both reflections of an obvious but often overlooked variable: the person you’re becoming in your late teens. After all, elite schools aren’t taking a random sample of high-school students and churning out success stories. They’re accepting people who are already on the road to success, connecting them with peers and alumni in successful jobs, giving them a degree that signals to employers that this person has the potential to be successful, and then basking in their eventual success. (The fact that networks and signals are enough to make elite schools valuable doesn’t prove that they don’t also offer a great education; it just makes it all the harder to study exactly how much better an elite education is.)

But let’s say you took a group of similarly gifted kids. Let’s say some were randomly accepted to super-duper-elite schools (like Yale) while others were rejected and attended less-elite schools (like Penn State). What if the results showed that both groups turned out nearly the same? Wouldn’t that offer sort of a nice message: that the habits you’ve built and the person you’re becoming at 18 matter more than the exact school you attend?

In fact, that was broadly the finding of one of my favorite studies, a 2002 paper from economists Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger. Here’s the summary, in their words:

We matched students who applied to, and were accepted by, similar colleges to try to eliminate this bias. Using the College and Beyond data set and National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972, we Žfind that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools.

These economists are not telling you that you can get straight Cs in high school and magically improve your life just by mailing an application to Princeton. It means, rather, that actually getting into Princeton isn’t as critical as being the type of person who could get into Princeton. (They did find, however, that for low-income students, more-prestigious schools yielded higher earnings, which is another issue entirely.)

New America’s Ben Miller also cautions,

The simple truth is, if you are in the financial situation to even have a choice between major, brand-name colleges across multiple states and timezones, you are already leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else attending a community college or regional public university (the type that tends to have “state” or a compass direction in its name). You’re picking among a set of well-resourced colleges where most students graduate and the degree name carries national recognition.

In fact, the mistake too many families make when picking schools is paying too much for a private college that’s likely no better and possibly worse than their home state’s flagship institution. For example, Scripps College costs almost $64,000 a year. The University of New Hampshire, the home state option for the student in Bruni’s op-ed, costs half that despite being one of the most expensive public colleges in the country. The two have nearly identical graduation rates and almost no borrowers default on their loans. It’s hard to make an argument that Scripps is $120,000 better over four years than UNH.

One reason why many families may not make the prudent financial choice is the belief that attending an elite college is a predicate for becoming fabulously wealthy. And it’s undeniable that the Ivy League does produce a lot of extremely affluent people. That reasoning, however, is a correlation versus causation error. People look at all the presidents, senators, CEOs and Davos attendees and conclude that because so many of these individuals attended Ivy League universities, it must be the colleges that matter. But that’s backwards. It’s because these colleges enroll the children of so many high-powered and wealthy people that they produce so many people who end up that way. They’re another form of the entrenched intergenerational income inequality we suffer from in this country.

The admissions process explains exactly how these colleges can so easily come to be dominated by the wealthy. That’s because it is not some virtuous exercise in meritocracy. Rather, it’s a rigged racket built on what often resembles pseudoscience.

For starters, about half the spots were filled months ago through an early admission process that favors wealthy applicants who are able to enroll regardless of the financial aid they receive. Students are also competing against legacy applicants who have odds that are closer to a coin flip of getting in. (Disclosure: I fell into this category and have felt guilty about it for forever.) Then the colleges need athletes to fill 280 sports teams. And as this piece on the George Washington University admissions process suggests, the actual discussion of applicants revolves around vague conceptions of fit and transcript analysis that none of the thousands of PhD-holding professors at these institutions would ever allow. Not getting into one of these colleges is as much the result of a personal failing as is losing a presidential election to Vladimir Putin.

My girls are just 6 (almost 7) and 4, so I’m only in the early stages of the process. Their mother died when they were very little but they’ve otherwise been relatively advantaged. Both their mother and I were first-generation college but it’s pretty much a given that they’ll be able to go to the best school they can get into. They went to private pre-school and are now in the best public elementary school in the area and in one of the best public school districts in the country. While extremely competitive, they live in a state with two “public Ivies,” the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, and several other top-flight public universities. It’s too early to know whether they have the academic chops to be competitive for the best schools, much less what their desires will be when they start the application process.

My oldest is already heavily involved in extracurriculars but not yet at the point where our nights and weekends are taken up with traveling sports and the like. While I’ll encourage them to pursue their passions and talents, I’d frankly be fine with not spending all my free time driving them to games.

We’ll see how well I do in letting them be kids as long as possible. I want them to apply themselves in school and keep their options open. At the same time, I don’t think they need to be consumed with pressure anytime soon. There’s plenty of time for that as adults.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    The only “push” I’ve given to my children is a push to apply themselves to the best of their own abilities. They’re 17 years apart, so it remains to be seen how the younger one does (although he’s already doing well in school), but the older earned a full-ride scholarship for undergrad and got her PhD sponsored, so it worked out very well for her.

    Of course living where you and I do there’s all kinds of extra pressure. I really do like living in NoVA, but sometimes I miss the down-to-earth Midwest in which I grew up.

  2. steve says:

    Sounds like you have good public schools, so you don’t have to worry much until high school. There are way more kids with the good grades and good test scores than there are slots at the top schools. That is when extracurriculars matter. As Unz noted, having a job in high school or engaging in activities common in rural areas (like 4-H) actually count against you. Avoid those. Sending your kids to build huts in Belize (even if all they really did was hang out at the beach), or something similar, count much more. just find out what the “hot” extracurriculars are when your kids start high school. Take the SAT prep courses and allot enough money to take the SAT multiple times. Get help writing a professional essay. The formula is well known, just costly in money and time, for parents and kids. (The formula is a bit different to get into grad (professional) school, but you probably know that one.)


  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My oldest is already heavily involved in extracurriculars but not yet at the point where our nights and weekends are taken up with traveling sports and the like. While I’ll encourage them to pursue their passions and talents, I’d frankly be fine with not spending all my free time driving them to games.

    Don’t let them. Kids and parents both need down time, some time together and some time by themselves. Hard to say where the balance is, but you’ll know, if not before, than definitely after you go too far.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    You can’t beat DNA. That’s my “scientific” finding. I grew up poor, with a teen-age single mom. My son grew up rich, with two middle-aged parents. We have almost identical IQ’s. I was raised in a religion, he’s an atheist from birth. We both found school boring. We both moved quickly into various high risk activities. Like clockwork. I imagine he’ll survive – I did, and I didn’t have a mom and dad able to bail my ass out. And I don’t think he’s quite the amoral swine I was. But we had a fairly good test case for the differing effects of DNA and upbringing, and frankly, DNA won.

    I suspect DNA generally wins. From very, very different upbringings (trailer on a bayou in the panhandle of Florida, vs., say villa in Tuscany or home in Tiburon) we were drawn at the exact same time toward risky behaviors.

    My daughter is adopted, so my wife and I have the relief of knowing she doesn’t carry our crazy, but the worry that she carries something else.

    So, here’s my advice James: it mostly doesn’t matter what you do as a parent. That’s both depressing and reassuring. You put a little spin on the ball, that’s it, but it’s the DNA operating system that lays the foundation. Whatever strengths, weaknesses, kinks, gifts, you and your wife had, you’ll most likely see them showing up in your daughters. Which, again, is either depressing or reassuring, depending.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Out here on the left coast in the Pacific Northwest things are different. I was a middle class kid who grew up at the foot of the hill where all of the mansions of the local wealthy lived in the late 50s and early 60s. Most of my friends were the children of those wealthy families. Most of them went to public school because there were few private schools in the area although to be honest the public schools in or area were better than the public schools in other parts of the city. A few may have gone to Ivy League east coast schoot most went to the University of Oregon which was very selective for a state school at that time.
    My best friend was the son of “old” money and it was old money since his wealthy family had migrated to Portland from Boston a century before. T o the best of my knowledge my friend’s father never worked a day in his life and in fact left the family to become a Buddhist priest when he was very young. My friend got tired of the BS and migrated to Australia in his mid 20s where he still lives today.
    Although I never escaped the middle class many of those wealthy friends are still dear friends to this day.

  6. Gustopher says:

    I’m a little skeptical of any report that says “poor people have it better.”

    I mean, sure, the wealthy have more resources to find ways to hurt themselves and pursue them, but you really have to cherry pick criteria to find ones that don’t make the wealthy way better off.

    There is no nobility in poverty, just less money and less opportunity.

  7. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: DNA is a major factor but in the case of you and your son both being drawn to risky behaviors the main factor is having XY chromosomes.

    It’s not for nothing no woman’s last words have ever been “Hold my beer and watch this!”

    More seriously, certainly DNA has a lot to do with it, but sometimes even having the same parents, two children can be very different. If you read my brother’s and my biographies, but with the identifying information removed so you didn’t know we are brothers, you’d never guess we are. We’re that different.

  8. DrDaveT says:


    I’m a little skeptical of any report that says “poor people have it better.”

    I would be, too. But that’s not what this study said — this study said that poor kids were happier. Not at all the same thing.

    When I was a kid, I’d have been happier too if my parents hadn’t gotten on my case about school, made me take violin lessons, kept track (though not by modern standards) of where I was and what I was doing, worried about who I was hanging out with, etc. As an adult, I’m extremely grateful that they went to all the trouble to do that.

    Happy =/= “have it better”, especially for kids.

    That said, it’s not uncommon for psych studies to find similar results among adults. We don’t have a long history of films like La Dolce Vita and books like The Great Gatsby for nothing. Being wealthy only insulates against some causes of unhappiness, and exacerbates others. (And no, I am not saying that we should feel sorry for the wealthy on that account.)

  9. Jc says:

    James, don’t worry, I am sure your girls will want to go out of state. 🙂 The DMV is a competitive area. Our region has something like 55% of working adults with at least an undergrad degree. Kids are expected to go to college. if you want to advance in DC MD NoVa you almost have to have one. I am sure that is both good and bad for kids as well as parents. I’d say do 2 at community college then transfer. save so much money that way and gives kids time to work and school and get ready for the real world.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @DrDaveT: “Happy” is one of those very hard to measure things, that’s influenced more by how you want to define it than anything.

    This has a strong whiff of “lucky duck poors, they don’t have to struggle to achieve these goals, because these goals are just completely out of their reach.”

  11. michael reynolds says:


    Yes, there is just a bit of a… let’s say, correlation … between the XY and the “Uh oh!”

  12. Franklin says:

    To some extent, being happy is how you are doing against expectations. The expectation of the elite is that you must be compete on everything at all times. We work all the time, and are starting at a younger and younger age (yup, my 2nd grader has homework 4 nights a week, plus some extra credit stuff).

    Apparently there’s roughly zero depression in hunter-gatherer societies (which compares quite favorably to modern day America), and they tend to work about 2 hours per day. But hey, at least we’re much more efficient at destroying the Earth.

  13. DrDaveT says:


    To some extent, being happy is how you are doing against expectations.

    Or, in some cases, how you are doing on the things that you think matter most.

    I’m 1.5 generations removed from some serious small-town poor. My extended family is a microcosm of society — factory workers, dirt farmers, convicts, God-fearing small town blue and white collar, truck drivers, successful professionals with advanced degrees, business executives, Silicon Valley gurus. The correlation between wealth and happiness in that extended family is nonzero and positive, but it’s pretty low. The very happiest of the bunch are scattered across all economic levels.

    I’m not trying to defend inequality here; I’m just pointing out that the old saw about “money can’t buy happiness” is rooted in truth, and Edwin Arlington Robinson wasn’t making sh!t up when he wrote “Richard Cory”.

  14. SC_Birdflyte says:

    The sociology of happiness isn’t hard science. I grew up in what I still regard as the “best” years for middle-class American kids, i.e., 1950-1969. It’s a matter of shifting standards of success. My very small high school class in the Deep South sent its students to state schools – University of Florida, FSU, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Troy and virtually all of us did better than our parents did. There have been many discussions about why these prospects have changed, but for a lot of American parents, the standard of success is getting your kids through college without loading a crushing amount of debt on their shoulders. Anything beyond that is gravy.

  15. t says:


    I’d say do 2 at community college then transfer.

    NOVA…where the n stands for knowledge.

  16. bill says:

    well, by and large i’d assume kids seem to be happy if they get to spend time with their parents?! i remember the “rich” kids where i grew up were kind of weird around my parents- like they had no idea how to interact with parental figures or something. plus, when dual income over-achievers get some time off they usually leave the kids home….it’s their choice i guess but i never got it.

  17. Gosh. Stuff, or the quantity thereof in your possession, doesn’t lead to happiness. Whoda thunk it?