What “Elite” Colleges May Say to Us All

As the seniors were winding up the writing of their applications to college, an article came out in The New York Times wondering whether going to an “elite college” was worth the cost. The main determinant in the answer appeared to be how much money a graduate could expect to make ten years after getting out.

Well, I am a teacher, and so I can’t have been worried about that. Maybe my values were skewed because “the cost” to me meant something different from what it usually means to a student (and his parents). One reason was that thanks to an extraordinarily generous scholarship, most of my expenses were paid; the other was my need to pay the rest myself. You may make what you like of this disclosure, but I can say confidently that I never worried about what I would be making ten years after getting out of the “elite college” I went to.

That seems to be a minority outlook today. The problem is that if Mommy’s Little Bean Counter wants to know the “return on investment” of a university education, there is little definitive to say. Yes, people who go to “elite colleges” make more than people who don’t, and the differential appears to be growing, but that is not the end of the story. According to the Times article, statisticians have also discovered that high-school students showing broadly similar quantifiable markers of ability and promise seem to get broadly comparable amounts of money in their careers regardless of the college they went to.

This got me thinking. When I entered college, the population of the U.S. was roughly two hundred million. Now it is a bit more than three hundred million: it has increased by fifty percent. Compare that with the growth in “elite colleges”: of the twenty-five national universities and twenty-five liberal arts colleges ranked highest by U S News, only five have been founded in the last hundred years, and four of those are in a single consortium, the Claremont Colleges in California. Not a single one has been founded in the fleeting years since I went to college.

My students look at me as if I were an antediluvian monster when I mention the gadgets that didn’t exist when I was their age, but I am positively up to date when I say that College X had a great reputation when I was a boy. There are half again as many kids to apply to the same fifty schools. Did they expand their classes? Some did, but not by 50%.

Add to that increase the number of kids who have succumbed to the Brand Anxiety Disorder (university strain), and these fifty must be far more selective than they were when I was trying to choose among them. The students they accept now are so extraordinarily accomplished that even when dim descendants of bright old names are factored in, these colleges’ classes would comprise individuals having generally much higher markers of promise and ability than formerly. So even the increase in income their graduates eventually register could be due entirely to demographics and not “elite” education. People who want return on investment would apparently be well advised to become fireballs and apply to a relatively cheap college with a good football team and strong alumni support.

The strange thing about the Times article was therefore how small a part anything but “return on investment” played in the discussion of which university to choose or whether “elite colleges” were worth the price. It did mention that within any university some departments are much stronger than others—so much so, said one former admission officer, that “there’s more variability within schools than between them.” That should add some complexity to an already baffling business. It suggests that even though some universities or departments may have better facilities than others, that explains only part of the difference between “eliteness” and “non-eliteness,” and maybe not the biggest part.

Universities and their departments, like high schools, seem to fly, or to sink, in new buildings or old, though of course, all other things being equal, great facilities would confer an advantage. But what are these other things? When I was applying to colleges, the University of Cambridge’s physics department was still housed in the old Cavendish Laboratory, built almost a hundred years earlier. I didn’t apply to Cambridge, but at the university I ended up attending, the physics department, one of the best in the country at that time, was housed in a building constructed forty years before.  What is true of physics is a fortiori true of pencil-and-paper departments.

An exchange occurred at Columbia in the mid-1940’s. Dwight Eisenhower, the new president of the university, referred in an early communication to the faculty as “employees of the university.” The physicist I. I. Rabi answered him, “Sir, we are the university.” Eisenhower accepted the correction.

This recognition suggests another, better, reason for attending an “elite college” than that it will produce a “return on investment.” Rabi was known for chalk talks with coffee in paper cups among professors and students. What I have read about them suggests that they were among the best conversations it was possible to have at that time in physics. The attendant “technology” was not advanced nor the facilities elite, but instead primitive and demotic (chalk, coffee, boiling water, paper cups) and didn’t make much difference. People had these conversations not because they expected a “return on investment” but because the talks were exciting and because they advanced learning, developing it and shaping—educating—the people who did the talking. It is hard to imagine Rabi being energized, improved, or made more effective by being subjected to a value-added learning audit or being appreciated because of participating in a horizontal study of the earning-potential of his graduate students. I think a good college or department, like the Porch of ancient Athens, becomes distinguished in time by a growth and maturation that cannot be predicted or forced, though it can be given opportunities to grow and mature in an environment where the faculty is treated with the respect due to it as being truly the school. I believe that a kindred organic complexity, also largely unpredictable, is true of high schools; they too can be nurtured in the hope that a desired efflorescence might take place.

It may be argued that high school teachers are in a different position[1], and it sometimes feels very much as if we are, but the palpation-and-command crowd would do well to take a careful look at how “elite” schools became elite. It had nothing to do with business models or five-year plans. The studies referred to in the Times article suggest that what makes them valuable is not value-addition, return on investment, business plans or branding but something less tangible and, to judge by the slowness with which schools establish themselves as “elite,” less subject to command than to patient alertness and nurture.


[1] See my first definition of “position” in my posting The Devil Made Me Say It

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