It’s mistake to conclude that “where you go to college is of almost no importance.” Even if they don’t offer the royal road to intellectual or professional success, elite colleges provide opportunities and resources that are tough to find elsewhere. And that’s one of the dilemmas of American higher education. An Ivy League diploma isn’t just a status good—it carries real advantages.
The first benefit of an elite education is access. A Harvard B.A. opens doors that a degree from, say, Lehigh simply won’t.
This is partly a matter of preferential hiring. Top-tier consulting and investment firms, for example, generally hire graduates of just three or four universities. No, this isn’t fair, and yes, there are exceptions. But the truth is, students at state universities who dream of Goldman Sachs are probably out of luck.
Even when there isn’t a policy of exclusion, students at elite universities join networks of professors and alumni whose members offer each other information, support, and advice that isn’t available to outsiders. Want to work at The New Yorker? A word from Louis Menand counts for a lot more than an enthusiastic letter from the overworked adjunct who taught you Lit 101 at Directional State.
The good news is that this kind of access is relevant in a few fields that are closely associated with Ivy League and tend to hire recent graduates. That means, above all, Wall Street or the prestige media. In most other areas, it matters less where you went to college. This includes professions that require advanced degrees and base their hierarchies on graduateschool pedigree, such as law, medicine, and academia.
A second advantage of attending an elite university is being around lots of other ambitious, capable people. Sometime, this is no more than luck of the draw. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder and controversial owner of The New Republic, can trace his fortune back to his time as Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate.
The benefits of proximity don’t always have a clear connection to learning. But sometimes they do: although they have their share of party animals, elite schools include large numbers of students devoted to serious study. There are outstanding teachers and students at every college and university in the country, and you can get a great education by selecting courses carefully. But you’ll learn more when you take classes with people who actually want to be there. (In this respect, mission-based great books or religious colleges may be even better than the Ivies).
Much the same is true outside the lecture hall. Whether they’re interested in the arts, politics, or other pursuits, students tend to work harder and find greater success when they’re surrounded by peers doing the same thing.
Nearly all universities have clubs or organizations that promote these kinds of communities. But clubs and societies aren’t worth much unless they have a large and active membership—which isn’t always easy to find in middle and lower reaches of the academic hierarchy.
The final advantage that elite colleges offer is money…and lots of it. Contrary to the popular perception, it is usually cheaper for a poor or middle class student to attend Yale than the local state university because the richest schools pay all or most tuition fees for many students. And it’s a lot easier to study when you don’t have to worry about paying the bills.
Elite colleges also offer lavish support, both official and from alumni, for extracurricular activities ranging from literary magazines to study abroad. Although they’re often dismissed as resume padding, many students learn more from these activities than they do from classes. In a recent column arguing that that you can learn just as much at the public universities that dominate big-time sports as you can at Yale, Jay Mathews recalls spending most of his time working for the school paper rather than studying. But that doesn’t mean that his alma mater was irrelevant to his career as a journalist—Mathew’s school paper was The Harvard Crimson, which offers a range and depth of coverage that few of its competitors match.
Access, intellectually and professionally ambitious peers, and institutional and financial support are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of a rewarding college experience. But they’re more important than advocates of the “individual responsibility” model of higher education usually admit. The question is whether these advantages justify their costs in effort, time, and sheer anxiety. I don’t envy students and families the task of the figuring that out.