I read with great interest Pamela Haag’s thoughtful assessment of her time at Swarthmore (and later Yale) in which she asks, “Are elite colleges worth it?” and succinctly answers, “For those who can afford to pay full price, it hardly matters. For the talented but not rich, it’s an agonizing question.” Yet she honestly admits that she cherishes the time she spent in that rarefied, privileged world. Who wouldn’t enjoy and profit from small classes, the confidence that comes from being considered the best, access to influential, powerful friends, and a beautiful setting? As Haag points out, part of the benefit of having graduated from an elite college is the “social and cultural capital [it gives you] to spend down” or trade on for the rest of your life. Of course, this value rests on the assumption that these students are the best and the brightest – and that they’ve received the highest quality education. It’s difficult to separate these two questions.
Our collective belief in an educational meritocracy seems unshakable, despite severe and damning evidence to the contrary. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his 2005 essay, admissions standards at Harvard – the notion of a “well-rounded” applicant – arose in 1920s as an anti-semitic response to the increase in Jewish students. Too many Jews at Harvard evidently meant the prestige and thus the market value of the college would decrease; thus, a policy favoring non-academic performance was devised. If this sounds outrageous, consider the policy of “legacies” and athletes, both of which “render the admissions process unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst” (Jerome Karabel, quoted in Gladwell’s essay).
Even more scathing is a 2009 exposé by The Daily Beast (famous now for their “punking” of Governor Walker) in which anonymous college admissions officers admit to random and idiosyncratic practices, baldly confessing to rejecting applicants they deemed “boring” and preferring applicants who seem “like them.”
While these reports show the more egregious examples of biased admissions practices, a deeper unfairness lies in the unequal access to a competitive high school record. Bluntly put, most students do not have high-powered, well-connected guidance counselors. They don’t have time for extracurricular activities because they work after school. They don’t all have parents to coach and encourage them.
In full disclosure, I went to a state university. I teach working- and middle-class students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Unlike my parents, I have saved (a modest amount) toward my daughter’s college fund -- not enough to pay for a private college, but hopefully enough to pay her tuition at a place like Madison. Would I want her to attend an “elite” college, if she could? That’s a difficult question. As a professor, I know the value of small classes, of well-endowed lecture series, of reasonably-compensated instructors.
Sure, I want her to have those advantages. But I would not want her to uncritically accept the spurious distinction between “elite” and “average,” nor to value herself based on how many are ranked below her.