Ivy for Me, But Not for Thee: The Real Reason To Shun Elite Education

Image from Questier.com, where apparently they like to break the rules.
Image from Questier.com, where apparently they like to break the rules. (Note sign in bottom left.)

William Deresiewicz’s article for The New Republic Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League definitely rubbed me the wrong way, and it didn’t take long to put my finger on it. From Deresiewicz’s Wikipedia page:

Deresiewicz attended Columbia University, where he majored in biology-psychology and graduated in 1985. He received a Masters in journalism from the same school in 1987 and a Ph.D. in English in 1998.

Not that Deresiewicz was hiding his Ivy League creds in the article itself. He wrote:

It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League—college and a Ph.D. at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale—that I started to think about what this system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it.

See, it’s not so much that his Wikipedia entry gives away some big secret that he went to an Ivy League school. Nope, the point is that he has a Wikipedia page. So right off the bat, we’re not talking about some Joe on the street. We’re talking a notable person. For someone to spend a quarter century in the Ivy League and then (after they have become a notable person) to decide that it’s a terrible, terrible stifling place after all is a little bit rich. Consider also the fact that Deresiewicz’s primary complaints about the Ivy League are the kind of complaints that only a person without real, pressing, economic concerns can have.

“Return on investment”: that’s the phrase you often hear today when people talk about college. What no one seems to ask is what the “return” is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?

Deresiewicz answers: “The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think.” It’s all well and good for successful academics to talk about the supreme importance of the life of the mind. After all, that’s what they are paid to do, right? But not everyone is so lucky.

I love the life of the mind. If I won the lottery I would spend the rest of my life in college, earning degrees in one field after another. Math, physics, history, languages, linguistics, architecture, medicine, computer science: there’s almost nothing I wouldn’t love to spend a lifetime studying. But the fact is I haven’t won the lottery, and a great deal of my life therefore revolves around the struggle to keep from having to move my wife and children back into my parents house for a second time.

Those of us who aren’t looking backwards from the comfort of a secure and prosperous career, but are rather looking forward at the daunting prospect of navigating these troubled economic times with solvent households are very concerned with “return on investment.” But it’s not because we’re unenlightened barbarians with no appreciation for the life of the mind. It’s because bills don’t pay themselves. Has Deresiewicz forgotten that? Or did he simply never know?

I will give him credit for this, however: his excoriation of elite schools as propagators of social injustice is an argument that does ring true to me. I have never seriously considered that Yale or Harvard could give me or my kids a better education than a good state school. The point of elite education is not to learn more. It’s get access to a better network and a better brand. My concern about sending my kids to the Ivies (should that be a possibility) has always queasiness at the trade off between encouraging them to participate in morally noxious elitism vs. wanting them to have an easier time of it than I have.1

I also have to give him credit for having an appropriately expansive definition of “elite education”:

When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.

It’s not attendance at an Ivy that will turn your kid into a zombie. It’s the way parents must structure every aspect of their kids’ childhood (so called) in order to gain admittance into said school that does the damage. By the time the kids arrive, I’d argue they are about as zombified as can be.

But, it turns out, there is hope! Deresiewicz presumes–and so had I–that elite education has a significant monetary advantage. In researching this post, however, I learned that that assumption is not true at all. Alan Krueger at Princeton University and Stacy Dale at Mathematica Policy Research conducted a very clever study where they compared the earnings of kids who went to Ivy Leagues with kids who were accepted to the Ivy Leagues but opted to go to less-prestigious universities. Since both groups got in, arguably both groups are roughly commensurate in terms of ability. So if the Ivy Leagues really have a return on investment (whether its from better education, better networking, or any other factor at all) the cohort that attended should have gotten higher earnings. But they didn’t. The two groups–those who attended Ivy League schools and those who were accepted did not–earned the same over the next decades (the original cohort started school in 1976, but the findings hold for a new cohort that entered in 1989).

That, for me, is a real reason not to send your kids to the Ivies. It’s not that some intellectual who has reaped the rewards of elite education for decades patronizingly tells you to “do as I say, not as I did.” It’s because they probably aren’t worth it in most cases. There are probably exceptions, like going to Yale Law if you want to teach law, that might apply at the very top of certain fields, and data also suggests that poor kids have the most to benefit from elite education, but in general (and especially for undergrad) it looks like your kids will be better off, all things considered, going to a good state school. And hey, they might get a real childhood that way, too.