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Milestones as Merit: Gatekeeping and Inequality in Elite Early Childhood Admissions


Research on culture and inequality demonstrates that class-based signals acquired during childhood are crucial mechanisms of class reproduction, yet children themselves are relatively undertheorized in this literature. Work tends to portray children from a given social class as culturally homogenous, downplaying within-class differences. In this article, we center children—and their perceived differences—through analyzing a high-stakes gatekeeping interaction relevant to class reproduction: admission to the country’s most elite private (“independent”) preK-12 schools. These schools serve as expressways to elite colleges but admit the bulk of students during the early childhood years. Through an interview-based study of admissions officers at elite independent schools, we find that these educational gatekeepers drew strong distinctions between economically privileged children based on bodily and behavioral signals they displayed in interaction. Integrating Bourdieu’s work on embodied cultural capital with Goffman’s work on impression management, we argue that gatekeepers favored children whose displays of interactional signals consistently conformed to class-based ideals of merit and lacked markers of stigma. Our findings highlight that, while parents’ knowledge and actions matter for procuring educational and social advantages for children, so do children’s perceived characteristics and behaviors, which can vary within a given social class. In addition, our findings call attention to the importance of studying the activation and perception of cultural capital in gatekeeping interactions.


Working Paper


Lauren Rivera, Estela Diaz

Date Published



Rivera, Lauren, and Estela Diaz. 2022. Milestones as Merit: Gatekeeping and Inequality in Elite Early Childhood Admissions.


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