Princeton is academically rigorous, but too exclusive and hierarchical. MIT has brilliant students, but it’s socially unpleasant. The University of Pennsylvania is altogether too career-minded.
These are some of the opinions that researchers heard when they asked 56 Harvard and Stanford students—most of them still in school, some of them recent graduates—which colleges they applied to and how they decided which one to attend.
The researchers, Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, and Andrea Abel, a graduate student there, published their analysis of the students’ sometimes barbed evaluations—recorded in interviews conducted five years ago—in the journal Sociology of Education late last year. Binder and Abel’s focus was on “how students construct a status hierarchy among elite campuses” and what this process has to do with establishing their own (perceived) position at the top of said hierarchy.
In general, the Harvard and Stanford students spoke highly of their own institutions, enthusing about their prestige and the broad assortment of opportunities they provided. One interviewee, a junior at Harvard, said she was won over when, during an admissions interview, she was advised, “You have to go to Harvard because a lot of these other schools are just not going to expand your experience enough.” Another Harvard student was pleased that she could dive into both biomedicine and Arabic without feeling like she was compromising the quality of her education in either subject.
Stanford students were proud, too, especially of their school’s (reputed) laid-back atmosphere. One alum called it “very creative and a little bit hipster.” Another marveled at “certain quirky things,” such as the fact that “[at] graduation they have neon, they’re wearing bikinis. At graduation!” On both campuses, students tended to believe that their schools’ sterling reputations were deserved.
A lot of the praise that students had for their schools, though, came implicitly, in the form of criticizing other campuses. The University of Pennsylvania—and, in particular, its business school, Wharton—was mentioned regularly as an example of what Harvard and Stanford proudly claimed not to be. Penn, in the view of these students, was too preprofessional. “I think people who pursue just a[n undergraduate] business degree, it’s like a signaling effect saying, ‘I don’t value learning for learning’s sake; I value education as a means to an end,’” said one recent Harvard graduate.
Other schools were looked down upon for other reasons—some for being too social, others for not being social enough. Some Harvard and Stanford students said they wouldn’t have fit in as well at Princeton (“It’s stiff”; “Everybody drinks too much”) or the University of Chicago (“Within five minutes, someone was trying to talk to me about Kant and, sort of, philosophy”). Meanwhile, there were plenty of well-regarded schools—such as Johns Hopkins and public universities like the University of California system and the University of Michigan—that none of the surveyed students brought up in conversation.
The colleges that these students had strong opinions about do have their own distinct cultures, but in the big picture, they are not so different. Binder notes that this pool of schools are all “incredibly selective,” “spend a lot of resources per pupil,” and have “very small” and “largely affluent student bod[ies]” who come from across the U.S. and the world. “In terms of how good the education is that students receive, they are basically the same on an objective scale,” she wrote to me in an email.
These interviews do not capture how all students at highly selective colleges generalize about students at similar schools, let alone how all students at just Harvard and Stanford do so. Still, Binder and Abel note that the 56 students’ beliefs were “highly convergent” and more or less consistent across gender, race, and socioeconomic background.
Binder and Abel have a theory for why many of these “elites-in-the-making” engage in such micro-comparisons (and, often, outright stereotyping): “By critiquing other campuses,” they write, “these students subtly elevate their own status and position.” If Princeton is regarded as too stiff, then Stanford is implied to be easygoing by comparison—and thus more deserving of renown.
The impulse to engage in such status elevation speaks to a broader anxiety that many of these students have about attending highly selective and competitive schools. “It’s about having worked all their young lives to get into an outlandishly selective university, knowing at some level that having made the 5 percent [admissions] cut is a matter of luck, but also being told that they got there through their own merit, and using every means at their disposal to bolster their confidence about themselves and the future,” Binder says.
As Binder and Abel suggest, these students may worry that many attendees of other colleges are as capable as they are, so emphasizing differences between schools can help validate them in self-identifying as uniquely brilliant and therefore deserving of the best education and jobs. Further, it’s also possible that these students—having for years devoted themselves fully to the project of becoming standout college applicants—feel the need to justify their past efforts.
The act of comparing may also be a sort of defense mechanism—an assertion on the part of these students that they are not what they fear, deep down, they may be. For instance, one Harvard alum who knocked Wharton for being too preprofessional was himself on the finance-career track that so many Whartonites pursue. When the researchers asked him why preprofessionalism was a relevant differentiator, given his own professional trajectory, he said, “You made a conscious decision to go to a[n undergraduate] business school, whereas I made a decision to get a liberal arts education that was less tailored and more open-ended.”
Binder and Abel also brought up the comments of a Harvard junior with a distaste for campuses that were too careerist. “This negative assessment of career focus was particularly striking since [she], herself, had participated in one of the student-run finance clubs throughout her years at Harvard, was on a path to take an investment banking job directly out of college, and planned to apply to an elite business school two years later and then return to Wall Street with her MBA in hand,” write Binder and Abel. Their research points to an uncomfortable truth about many highly ranked, highly selective schools: They aren’t as different from one another as some of their attendees would prefer to think.