College Admissions 2004 October 2004

Who Needs Harvard?

The pressure on smart kids to get into top schools has never been higher. But the differences between these schools and the next tier down have never been smaller

In terms of students who went on to interesting or prominent lives, Colorado College may have done just as well in this period as Columbia or Cornell or any other Gotta-Get-In destination. Doubtless other colleges could make the same claim for themselves for this or other periods; I'm simply citing the example I know personally. The point is that for some time the center of gravity for achievement has been shifting away from the topmost colleges.

Fundamental to that shift has been a steady improvement in the educational quality of non-elite schools. Many college officials I interviewed said approximately the same thing: that a generation or two ago it really was a setback if a top student didn't get admitted to an Ivy or one of a few other elite destinations, because only a small number of places were offering a truly first-rate education. But since then the non-elites have improved dramatically. "Illinois Wesleyan is a significantly better college than it was in the 1950s," says Janet McNew, the school's provost, "whereas Harvard has probably changed much less dramatically in the past half century." That statement could apply to many other colleges. Pretty good schools of the past have gotten much better, while the great schools have remained more or less the same. The result is that numerous colleges have narrowed the gap with the elites.

How many colleges now provide an excellent education? Possibly a hundred, suggests Jim Conroy, of New Trier; probably more than two hundred, Shirley Levin says. The improvement is especially noteworthy at large public universities. Michigan and Virginia have become "public Ivies," and numerous state-run universities now offer a top-flight education. Whether or not students take a public university up on its offer of a good education is another matter: large, chaotic campuses may create an environment in which it's possible to slide by with four years of drinking beer and playing video games, whereas small private colleges usually notice students who try this. Yet the rising quality of public universities is important, because these schools provide substantial numbers of slots, often with discounted in-state tuition. Many families who cannot afford private colleges now have appealing alternatives at public universities.

One reason so many colleges have improved is the profusion of able faculty members. The education wave fostered by the GI Bill drew many talented people into academia. Because tenured openings at the glamour schools are subject to slow turnover, this legion of new teachers fanned out to other colleges, raising the quality of instruction at non-elite schools. While this was happening, the country became more prosperous, and giving to colleges—including those below the glamour level—shot up. When the first GI Bill cohort began to die, big gifts started flowing to the non-elites. (Earlier this year one graduate bequeathed Pitt's law school $4.25 million.) Today many non-elite schools have significant financial resources: Emory has an endowment of $4.5 billion, Case Western an endowment of $1.4 billion, and even little Colby an endowment of $323 million—an amount that a few decades ago would have seemed unimaginable for a small liberal arts school without a national profile.

As colleges below the top were improving, the old WASP insider system was losing its grip on business and other institutions. There was a time when an Ivy League diploma was vital to career advancement in many places, because an Ivy grad could be assumed to be from the correct upper-middle-class Protestant background. Today an Ivy diploma reveals nothing about a person's background, and favoritism in hiring and promotion is on the decline; most businesses would rather have a Lehigh graduate who performs at a high level than a Brown graduate who doesn't. Law firms do remain exceptionally status-conscious—some college counselors believe that law firms still hire associates based partly on where they were undergraduates. But the majority of employers aren't looking for status degrees, and some may even avoid candidates from the top schools, on the theory that such aspirants have unrealistic expectations of quick promotion.

Relationships labeled ironic are often merely coincidental. But it is genuinely ironic that as non-elite colleges have improved in educational quality and financial resources, and favoritism toward top-school degrees has faded, getting into an elite school has nonetheless become more of a national obsession.

W hich brings us back to the Krueger-Dale thesis. Can we really be sure Hamilton is nearly as good as Harvard?

Some analysts maintain that there are indeed significant advantages to the most selective schools. For instance, a study by Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard economist who has researched college outcomes, suggests that graduates of elite schools do earn more than those of comparable ability who attended other colleges. Hoxby studied male students who entered college in 1982, and adjusted for aptitude, though she used criteria different from those employed by Krueger and Dale. She projected that among students of similar aptitude, those who attended the most selective colleges would earn an average of $2.9 million during their careers; those who attended the next most selective colleges would earn $2.8 million; and those who attended all other colleges would average $2.5 million. This helped convince Hoxby that top applicants should, in fact, lust after the most exclusive possibilities.

"There's a clear benefit to the top fifty or so colleges," she says. "Connections made at the top schools matter. It's not so much that you meet the son of a wealthy banker and his father offers you a job, but that you meet specialists and experts who are on campus for conferences and speeches. The conference networking scene is much better at the elite universities." Hoxby estimates that about three quarters of the educational benefit a student receives is determined by his or her effort and abilities, and should be more or less the same at any good college. The remaining quarter, she thinks, is determined by the status of the school—higher-status schools have more resources and better networking opportunities, and surround top students with other top students.

Presented by

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic, a senior editor of The New Republic, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (2003).

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