Tag Archives: prestige colleges

“Elite” Colleges And Rich Delusions

When the news broke about rich parents buying their children’s admittance to “elite” colleges–falsifying credentials, paying smart kids to take the SATs, and bribing admissions personnel–it reminded me of my mother’s most abiding regret.

My mother was extremely bright, and made excellent grades in high school. She desperately wanted to go to college–but her parents were poor, and could only manage tuition at a local college if she lived at home. Room and board elsewhere were out of reach. My mother wanted a traditional campus social experience (as she said later, she was young and misguided), so she just didn’t go to college. She read voraciously and educated herself, but the local college was very good and she would have benefitted from going.

The lesson–which I never forgot–is that If a good education is really what you want, it is widely available.

There are an estimated 5,300 colleges in the U.S. They vary widely in the breadth and quality of their offerings, but you can get a very good education–I will go so far as to say an excellent education–in the top 500 or so. (Probably more.)

Of course, you need to want an education–not merely a social life, an impressive credential, connections to wealthy classmates, or bragging rights for making it into the most selective institutions.

I’m not knocking the benefits of going to a school with the offspring of the rich and famous; I still remember being a first-year associate in a law firm with a number of Harvard and Yale graduates. If a client needed local counsel in another state, the lawyer involved would frequently pull out his alumni register and hire a classmate practicing in that state. I’m sure that those school ties are equally valuable in a number of other professions.

As the news media has delved into the scandal, what they have discovered is something that most of us who are in academia have always known: the “elite” schools are certainly very good, but they are also selective about their selectivity, routinely favoring the offspring of alumni, especially generous alumni. (Jared Kushner’s father endowed a building at Harvard, and presto! despite mediocre grades, Jared was admitted) They also have special “quotas” for certain kinds of athletes.

You can find plenty of intellectual deadwood in those “groves of academe.”

The parents involved in this particular scandal apparently fall into the “bragging rights” category, but whatever their motivations, ensuring that their children received a superior education was pretty clearly not among them.

What this sordid episode revealed was the utter superficiality of so much of American culture, where appearances are more important than substance, where a college education is seen as a credential rather than an opportunity to explore the store of knowledge that humans have amassed, or an effort to confront the existential questions that loom so large when we are young.

Approaching a college education as if it is a more “elite” form of job training is why many middle-tier struggling institutions are jettisoning courses in the humanities in favor of technical skills and STEM, and why parents try to talk their children out of majoring in “impractical” subjects like philosophy or anthropology or English literature.

People who view all of life as a game of one-upmanship want their children to attend “prestige” universities, whether or not those institutions are the best fit for that child.

People who view life as an adventure to be illuminated by knowledge, who view learning as a life-long task and college as a place where you learn how to engage in that task, are satisfied if their children attend any of the many, many institutions able to nourish their intellectual curiosity and introduce them to the great minds and achievements of human civilization.

If I was still helping my children search for those places, however, I think I’d look askance at the schools that (legally or illegally) traded admissions for money…