September 09, 2004
US colleges - the best versus the best of the rest

Michael Jennings PhD (who has just got himself a fine new job and is therefore an example of a successful education) emails with a link to this article by Gregg Easterbrook about the relative merits of the Big Name US colleges compared to the less well known ones which are damn near – and sometimes absolutely - as good. But, he says, as the gap narrows, the obsession among parents with getting their children in to the Big Names only gets more obsessional:

As colleges below the top were improving, the old WASP insider system was losing its grip on business and other institutions. There was a time when an Ivy League diploma was vital to career advancement in many places, because an Ivy grad could be assumed to be from the correct upper-middle-class Protestant background. Today an Ivy diploma reveals nothing about a person's background, and favoritism in hiring and promotion is on the decline; most businesses would rather have a Lehigh graduate who performs at a high level than a Brown graduate who doesn't. Law firms do remain exceptionally status-conscious—some college counselors believe that law firms still hire associates based partly on where they were undergraduates. But the majority of employers aren't looking for status degrees, and some may even avoid candidates from the top schools, on the theory that such aspirants have unrealistic expectations of quick promotion.

Relationships labeled ironic are often merely coincidental. But it is genuinely ironic that as non-elite colleges have improved in educational quality and financial resources, and favoritism toward top-school degrees has faded, getting into an elite school has nonetheless become more of a national obsession.

So what is my comment supposed to be about that? No problem. Michael Jennings PhD supplied comment as well as the link:

My personal experience is that the quality of the education varies a bit between famous and less famous but solid universities, but not really all that much. (Less elite universities will also often make special arrangements and give special attention for talented and successful students when they get them, too). What does vary a lot is the talent, ambition, and general interestingness of the students. I studied at a solid but obscure Australian university, a well known Australian university, and an internationaly famous university, and the number of interesting people I found to talk to increased steadily with the reputation of the institution.

I went to Cambridge (England) and screwed it up, being slung out after two years. (I should have left after one.) Then I went to a lesser university, and made it work much better.

Gratuitous picture:

ivy.jpg

Ivy. You knew that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:50 PM
Category: Higher education