Why Elite College Mania Makes Sense

Does an "elite" education pay? The New York Times reviews economic evidence and not surprisingly, finds it inconclusive. And after decades of teaching, book acquisition, and visiting speaking at campuses of all kinds across the country, I say it's undecidable. The best quote:

"Everything we know from studying college student experiences and outcomes tells us that there is more variability within schools than between them," said Alexander C. McCormick, a former admissions officer at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, and now an associate professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington.

"This is the irony, given the dominance of the rankings mentality of who's No. 5 or No. 50," Professor McCormick added. "The quality of that biology major offered at School No. 50? It may exceed that at School No. 5."

Amen. The University of Illinois accepts almost two-thirds of applicants, but its science and engineering rankings are higher than those of many departments and programs of Ivies that have higher U.S. News rankings.

Still, there's something to be said for the broader academic and social environment of the competitive admission schools. Even many celebrity dropouts, the same ones Peter Thiel cited in his criticisms of higher education, were able to leave precisely because of the accelerated advantages of privileged education. Bill Gates and Paul Allen could begin programming as teenagers thanks to donations to their private high school by a computer company and a parents group. A timesharing teletype was not a feature of most secondary schools at the time.Steve Jobs may have left the academic program at Reed College, but he was able to take advantage of its unique calligraphy program -- the kind of course derided by many critics of impractical arts programs, but later essential to the design of the Mac. Jobs' adoptive father and mother had expressly promised to provide a college education for the boy, and were willing to pay for an expensive, highly regarded school. Harvard's high density of students with both computer skills and family money for early expenses (the Winklevoss twins, Eduardo Saverin, and others) was crucial to Mark Zuckerberg in launching Facebook. Ivy lacrosse teams are renowned as investment-banking feeders. Peter Thiel himself followed a stereotypically conventional elite curriculum, from a philosophy major at Stanford, a J.D. from Stanford Law, clerkship, and stints as derivatives trader and securities attorney with Sullivan and Cromwell, the firm that sold Congress on the Panama Canal. So he's a living argument for majoring in humanities (philosophy) at a top school and following the in-crowd to corporate law.

The Times may be overlooking one of the biggest reason for the popularity of the Ivies and schools like them, large endowments and scholarship funds that reduce effective costs below those of many places with lower nominal fees. Most of USA Today's list of the "best value" private colleges are high-tuition, highly ranked schools. Many students who could qualify, have some ability that matches a college's strengths, and could afford the (discounted) costs are needlessly intimidated by sticker prices. (See explanations from e.g. Harvard, Penn, and Princeton.) Officials are saying they want to broaden their undergraduate base in response to criticisms. Applications maybe be up in part because more high school students and their parents are taking them at their word.

What if the college says no? I've already posted about rejection here.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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