Attending an Elite College Is an Identity

Some students at highly selective institutions fail to acknowledge their own privilege, and as a result tend to embrace an overly narrow and dogmatic definition of diversity, Eboo Patel writes.

January 9, 2018
( Babakin)

There is an interesting exchange in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind in which Haidt describes being criticized by a graduate student for speaking about the positive social impacts of religious identity. “But religions are all exclusive,” the graduate student exclaimed, citing the dynamics of the Roman Catholic Church in particular.

When Haidt pointed out that his graduate program rejected almost all of its applicants, the graduate student asking the question (who had likely won a place in a department because others had been rejected) seemed to think that this was part of the natural order of things, and not at all like the exclusive dimensions of religious identity.

As an American Muslim who runs an interfaith organization that works in higher education, I speak on about 25 college campuses a year, frequently filling the diversity slot. I have noticed something similar to what Haidt points to in his example: people on campuses rarely speak of being a college student as an identity.

Moreover, at least in my experience, the more elite the college, the more likely students are to be assertive on the politics of race, gender and sexuality, but the less likely they are to mention the implications of being at a top-25 college. It appears to me that there is much talk about race, gender and sexuality privilege during first-year orientation at Ivy League colleges, but not that much conversation about Ivy League privilege.

This omission surprises me because the advantages associated with attending college, especially an elite college, are both clear and significant. In his book Our Kids, Robert Putnam observes that the American socioeconomic order can be neatly sorted into three categories. Those who have a high school education or less occupy the lower third, those with some college the middle third, and those who have completed college the upper third. A host of other quality-of-life indicators -- occupation, income, health, social status, self-identity -- are quite straightforwardly predicted by level of education.

This data includes people with any kind of college degree. If you are at a selective name-brand institution, your chances of success in the knowledge economy are significantly higher on average than the individual who goes to a second-tier state school.

Consider this: there are just over 2,500 residential nonprofit four-year institutions of higher education in the United States, what most people reading this publication normally think of as “college” (I am not counting the several thousand for-profit institutions). If you attend a top-250 institution, you are in the top 10 percent; if you attend a top-25 institution, well, you are surely smart enough to do the math in your head.

If the selectivity of these schools maps in any way to success in the current economy, you have just positioned yourself in the upper reaches of the top third of American society.

If you are at an elite college, you probably know this, at least intuitively, which is why you went to the trouble of positioning yourself to be admitted to such an institution in the first place.

I recently made this point in a heated discussion about identity politics at a highly selective liberal arts school and was met with the “merit” argument. It goes something like this: yes, there are significant privileges that accrue to being a graduate of a selective college, but that is an earned identity, very much unlike being white, male or straight.

As somebody who attended a flagship state university and an elite graduate school, I have a fondness for this line of argument. After all, it bestows virtue on a dimension of my identity. But then I remember that just as race, gender and sexuality are identities that are given meaning by their socially constructed contexts, so is education level.

Consider this: if you live in a hunter economy, your position in the socioeconomic hierarchy is likely determined by how well you hunt. If you live in a warrior society, your status is associated with your ability to fight. I happen to have been born into a unique time and place in which the things that I am good at -- reading, writing and thinking -- are king. If the social hierarchy were based on other skills, and most societies over the course of human history have been, I’d be middling at best.

Attending a selective college and accepting one’s role atop the socioeconomic hierarchy has consequences for others. Consider how some of the industries almost entirely occupied by elite college graduates like technology and management consulting affect the less educated. Over the long run, they may create better lives and jobs for people of all educational identities, but in the all-important now people who work in these industries create products and processes that unemploy others.

Imagine for a moment if workers at a factory down the hill from an elite college decided to engage in identity politics. As students in seminars are telling one another to check their white privilege, the workers could be standing outside the campus gates with signs that read “What Creative Destruction Really Means: You Get to Be Creative, We Get Destroyed.”

None of this is intended to quash conversations about race, gender, sexuality or religion on campus. Quite the contrary, I think these are some of the most important conversations we have in our society, especially in a nation so defined by identity issues. That is precisely why I started an organization that focuses on religious diversity in higher education.

But I do wish that diversity conversations considered a wider range of identities, and that they were conducted a bit more in a spirit of inquiry and mutuality rather than condemnation. More light, less heat.

The students in the aforementioned seminar who encounter the protesting factory workers might say, “There is more to me than my identity as a college student. And I don’t intend to use my educational privilege in that manner, anyway. Can we talk a moment?”

An excellent point. There is virtue in being modest about one’s characterizations of the world, of other people and of oneself, and there is much to learn from talking to people with a range of identities, experiences and views.

Playing host to such wide-ranging and considerate conversations is one of the primary purposes of a college.

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Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues.


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