Trump vs. Harvard and Yale, Continued

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Recently I posted a dispatch from a reader based in New Haven, himself a Harvard graduate, who said that America’s elite-level universities were ill-prepared for what the Trump administration had in store for  them.

Here is a sampling of the response that has come in. First, the flippant:

Your blog post detailing a reader’s concern about the insularity and elitism of Ivy League universities made me think of a personal anecdote about the last time I visited Cornell.

It was my 24th birthday, and I was at an apartment party with a few friends. I was offered the chance to pick the music, and I decided to put on one of the greatest pop songs of all time, Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”

Not only did no one besides me dance, but someone had the gall to change the track during the iconic vamp where Mariah hits the highest falsetto note of the song. Maybe it’s just me being petty, but that moment demonstrated the aloofness and entitlement of Ivy League students; if they wouldn’t let me finish listening to one of my favorite songs on my birthday, and an objectively fantastic one at that, how much awareness do they really have about their fellow American’s lives, and will they realize that their instincts and decision-making skills aren’t always right?

Yeah, I’m probably just being petty.


Much more substantively, from another reader, a young woman named Erica Yurvati :

I just read your post about the future of elite schools in the Trump era. I think I might have a unique perspective to add.

I grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which is a small town in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It's definitely Trump territory. Most of my ancestors were farmers and my mom's generation was the first to go to college. I was an overachiever who made the most of the opportunities at my school and was lucky enough to have parents who supported me in activities outside of school.

When I got into Yale, I knew it would change my life and it absolutely did.

She continues:

I received an amazing financial aid package and I grew so much between freshman year and graduation. Yale was extremely generous and I feel very fortunate and grateful.

While I was a student at Yale I also attended the state university in my hometown (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) because my mom had worked there and I then received a tuition waiver. I wanted to study criminal justice, and Yale didn't have this program. I took classes online over my winter and summer breaks and then I took two semesters off from Yale to take classes in person while living at home. I earned two bachelor's degrees in five years from two different institutions.

* * *

It wasn't Arizona State, but it's the same idea that you discussed in your notes. I wanted to share a little bit about my experience.

I chose to study at university because I genuinely love learning and I have to admit—I love achievement. I feel lost when I'm not pushing myself towards some new pursuit. I wanted the best education I could get, and I definitely noticed that both Yale and Kutztown had their advantages and disadvantages.

I was very lucky to experience both institutions, but I can't deny how different they are. Yale was more academically demanding, but it can be a bubble. Kutztown provided more practical opportunities and specialization within my major, but there's a lot more responsibility on the individual student to do more than just pass or meet the minimum mark. There are great students and faculty at both schools, but I absolutely was pushed much harder at Yale.

I'm all for the idea of exchange programs, but I'm not sure it would change people's perspective of Yalies. I was a neurotic, overachieving nerd in high school, and I was a neurotic, overachieving nerd at both colleges. I am still a neurotic, overachieving nerd in my twenties who spends Sunday afternoons reading The Atlantic online and writing lengthy responses to its writers.

Education was never about getting a job for me. I just really, really, really love school and learning. I am always driving myself to work harder, to do more, to learn something new.

It was interesting that the writer of the message you received said "When you hear how great you are over and over again, you tend to come to believe it," because I've never felt that way at Yale. I have always felt that I needed to prove my ability to call myself a Yalie.

This is what I wish people who criticize the Ivy League would understand. I worked my ass off to get there, and because I'm there I feel I have to be even better. I often wonder what I need to do to prove to the red states, Trump associates, GOP members, etc. that I am worthy.

I went to Kutztown and I succeeded. I went to Yale and I succeeded (although I always think I could have done more). I never think that I am part of the global elite. I'm just a small town girl striving to be the best I can be.

On the larger question of the connection between educational pedigree and occupational ability (or success), another reader writes:

It is "common knowledge" that having a bachelor's (or higher) degree increases your chances for better jobs, higher income, and all that is associated with those things.

And that going to a "better" university amplifies the effect.

I ask: Why is that? And here is what I believe.

Before WW II and the GI Bill, not that many people attended college, and having a degree was something special.

People noticed that and concluded, "Aha! Something magic happens at college to these people. Have it happen to you and you will join their ranks!"

But in my belief, it is not the case that these universities are machines that take whoever gains admission, perform some magic on them, and produce graduates who now have "what it takes to succeed" in life.

Sure, spending four years in that environment, taking the classes, studying, writing papers, and so forth, has a lot of value to it, as does simply maturing from an 18-year-old to a 22-year-old, but much of what you learn does not have much direct application to most jobs, or much else in life….

But employers seek out these graduates, preferring them to others.

* * *

I believe much of the reason for that is that the university ecosystem is a screening process as much as it is a bunch of knowledge and skill factories.

Knowing a lot about Shakespeare is not all that useful.

Being someone who could learn and understand a lot about Shakespeare is.

That person can learn other things, too, and more readily than Joe Shmoe off the street.

Essentially, people who can a) get in, and b) earn a degree, are just smarter people to begin with, and will do better (given the chance) regardless of how they spent their undergraduate years.

They will also have a good start on a network of similar people, also launched on successful careers. That alone is a big part of the value of that degree.

The higher up the food chain a school is, the more competitive the admissions process, and the more selective they can be, thus choosing smarter entrants, and spitting out smarter graduates.

One reason for that is "educational inflation", by which I don't mean just grade inflation. With a much broader college-going population, the average quality is bound to be lower.

Evidence of that can be found on many campuses, especially those megasized state Universities, where, alongside many serious, dedicated students, there will be plenty of others just getting by in their classes, while pursuing their 'real' major: Budweiser.

Let me cite a pair of anecdotal examples to make my point:

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both entered Harvard as undergraduates, but both also dropped out along the way to pursue “other activities.” For each of them, those “other activities” turned out rather well.

I conclude it was not any Harvard Magic that turned them into who they became, but rather it was already in them, and the fact that gained entry into Harvard in the first place marked them as capable people.

As it happens, and as a reminder that there are only a handful of central arguments in American life, which constantly recur in slightly different guises, I went into this very issue several decades ago, in an Atlantic article called “The Case Against Credentialism,” and then my book More Like Us.

* * *

One more for now. Another reader writes:

  • On the issue of "affirmative action"… [it can be argued that] these elite universities are largely seeking to admit and graduate students that promote the brands and reputations of these institutions. The notion of "merit" should be viewed through that lens.
  • The risk to the present activities of these institutions is not coming because of "The Trump Years" but has been building for decades. From Bakke, through the U. of Michigan through Fisher v. U of T, there has been a long, multi-pronged effort to attack *certain* preferences and to use those attacks for electoral gains by stoking tribal resentments ... Trump's role is simply to co-opt these existing goals and resentments for his own ends.
  • Your correspondent talks about the concentration of elites through the Clinton-Bush-Obama years and some sort of push-back in the Trump years. How many Goldman Sachs appointees [by Trump] do I have to name to undermine that premise? …
  • I laughed out loud at the suggestion that elite universities are opening satellite campuses to provide study-abroad opportunities for their students. These campuses are extensions of the brands of these institutions and are intended to capture the money and loyalties of future leaders from capital-rich portions of the world. It's building the brand and bringing wealth and influence into the global network.
  • I agree that these universities would serve their students and the U.S. well to foster access to other parts of the country. In fact, I am aware that one such institution has had an exchange program with an HBC since I was an undergraduate. Using Occam's Razor, I will assert without proof that this is not the only elite university in the U.S. that has an exchange program with a school from an under-represented part of the country. I suggest, respectfully, that your correspondent is mixing too very different goals of these institutions and is under-informed with respect to the activities towards one of those goals.
  • In summary, I agree with your correspondent that the forces building against "affirmative action" will see significant victories in the years ahead. [But] I believe that these victories have approximately "zero" to do with the excesses of Bob Rubin or any of the technocratic elites who did well while supposedly doing good during their government service over the last few decades. I believe that the individuals who will be hurt by these developments will be non-white citizens of middle class or more modest means who are unable to participate in the expensive competition of producing elite college applicants.
  • The elite institutions themselves will be FINE. Yes, there will be on-campus protests against the reactionary victories. There will be a tremendous push towards needs-blind admissions, economically-focused affirmative action policies AND admissions of international students from the southern hemisphere. But the business of educating ambitious, book-smart students and feeding them into select opportunities within business, government and elsewhere will continue unfettered. After all, these institutions do not create demand for so-called "elite university" graduates, we do.

Thanks to these readers. I’ll have more to say about the New Haven-based author of the previous dispatch, including his real name and background, in upcoming reports.