I was looking at my blog stats today and I noticed that the topic that gets the most hits is The Ivy League. So being the attention junkie that I am, I thought, heck, why don't I write about the Ivy League again and see if my readership jumps up.
It's no secret that most parents (and students) would sell their souls to send their kids (or themselves) to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton (which someone I knew once termed as "the Holy Trinity of American higher education." I hope she was being sarcastic when she said it but I doubt it). I know a kid who graduated with Tyler at ISM whose one and only reason for everything he did in high school was to gain admission to Harvard. He took classes only for the A's. He took four higher level IB courses not because he was particularly intellectual but only because he wanted to impress the Ivy admissions officers. He was a grade grubber supreme and his classmates and teachers knew it. I truly felt sorry for this kid. He sold his intellectual soul to get into Harvard...and for what? (Epilogue to the story: he did get into Harvard)
Most people send their kid to Ivy schools (and other non-Ivy schools of similar prestige like Stanford) because they honestly feel that their kids will get superior, elite educations. Amidst the towering intellectuals, the superstar professors and super bright classmates, my son/daughter will surely graduate and found the next Google or Microsoft or win the Nobel Prize. Perhaps more importantly, whose eyes won't bulge, whose face won't turn green with envy when you tell your peers that yes, my son goes to Wharton (not Penn, Wharton!) or my daughter was admitted to Stanford. But it's a sham, a mirage.
Permit me to go astray for a moment and invite you to consider an organization like the US Marine Corps. The US Marine Corps is not a particularly selective bunch, they'll take just about anyone who is reasonably intelligent and physically fit. But if the recruit graduates from Marine training, this reasonably intelligent, physically fit anybody is now a highly proficient soldier, arguably one of the very finest in the world. The process has turned coal into a diamond. Consider now, a modeling agency. A modeling agency takes beautiful people and gets them assignments as models. The modeling agency doesn't turn them into beautiful people, they were already beautiful to begin with! I would argue that with the stringent admissions policy of the Ivy colleges, they are more like modeling agencies than the US Marine Corps. The Ivies take bright, motivated (by grades?) students and turns them into....bright and motivated graduates. There's no real transformation there.
(Note: the analogies of the Marine Corps and the modeling agency are not original. I read it somewhere on the Internet and I spent the last few hours trying to find it again so I can attribute it properly. No luck so far. I'll update the article with the proper attribution later)
And there lies the heart of why I think it's all a sham or mirage. There's no real transformation, the kids there are not challenged to do more than they're capable of. Kids there are so used to being No. 1 and so used to being on top that they won't do anything to ruin that pristine GPA and endangering that chance to get that job at Goldman Sachs or the entree to law school, business school or medical school. William Deresiewicz, a former Yale faculty member and himself an Ivy educated man, writes in his essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" that a rather unhealthy message is drilled into the mind of every Ivy student.
The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher. Deresiewicz, http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/
It's primarily because of this that there's rampant grade inflation at elite universities. The students won't allow anyone else to give them anything less than an A-. The student culture is that of outcomes: what do I get out of this? How is this going to help me land that great job? That attitude is highly toxic to true intellectual discourse and inquiry, something that these elite institutions claim they do better than anybody else.
In the next post, I'll address the other half of the Ivy equation: what about the name and the prestige? Doesn't that count for something in getting a better paying job? Isn't it a fact that Ivy graduates earn more than graduates of non-Ivies?
May 23, 2014
Update: The analogy of the Marine Corps and the modeling agency I used above is from Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist and speaker. Here is what he said
Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.
At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.
The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modelling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed. How do we know that two students who have the same S.A.T. scores and grades really are equivalent? It’s quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic and personable than the student who wasn’t let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.