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.
"Today there are large numbers of colleges with good faculty, so faculty probably isn't the explanation for the advantage at the top," Hoxby says. "Probably there is not much difference between the quality of the faculty at Princeton and at Rutgers. But there's a lot of difference between the students at those places, and some of every person's education comes from interaction with other students." Being in a super-competitive environment may cause a few students to have nervous breakdowns, but many do their best work under pressure, and the contest is keenest at the Gotta-Get-Ins. Hoxby notes that some medium-rated public universities have established internal "honors colleges" to attract top performers who might qualify for the best destinations. "Students at honors colleges in the public universities do okay, but not as well as they would do at the elite schools," Hoxby argues. The reason, she feels, is that they're not surrounded by other top-performing students.
There is one group of students that even Krueger and Dale found benefited significantly from attending elite schools: those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Kids from poor families seem to profit from exposure to Amherst or Northwestern much more than kids from well-off families. Why? One possible answer is that they learn sociological cues and customs to which they have not been exposed before. In his 2003 book, Limbo, Alfred Lubrano, the son of a bricklayer, analyzed what happens when people from working-class backgrounds enter the white-collar culture. Part of their socialization, Lubrano wrote, is learning to act dispassionate and outwardly composed at all times, regardless of how they might feel inside. Students from well-off communities generally arrive at college already trained to masquerade as calm. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit from exposure to this way of carrying oneself—a trait that may be particularly in evidence at the top colleges.
It's understandable that so many high schoolers and their nervous parents are preoccupied with the idea of getting into an elite college. The teen years are a series of tests: of scholastic success, of fitting in, of prowess at throwing and catching balls, of skill at pleasing adults. These tests seem to culminate in a be-all-and-end-all judgment about the first eighteen years of a person's life, and that judgment is made by college admissions officers. The day college acceptance letters arrive is to teens the moment of truth: they learn what the adult world really thinks of them, and receive an omen of whether or not their lives will be successful. Of course, grown-up land is full of Yale graduates who are unhappy failures and Georgia Tech grads who run big organizations or have a great sense of well-being. But teens can't be expected to understand this. All they can be sure of is that colleges will accept or reject them, and it's like being accepted or rejected for a date—only much more intense, and their parents know all the details.
Surely it is impossible to do away with the trials of the college-application process altogether. But college admissions would be less nerve-racking, and hang less ominously over the high school years, if it were better understood that a large number of colleges and universities can now provide students with an excellent education, sending them onward to healthy incomes and appealing careers. Harvard is marvelous, but you don't have to go there to get your foot in the door of life.