By now this is a familiar commonplace in our discussions about the crisis of higher education. Here’s one recent example by Derek Thompson from the Atlantic that essentially argues that it’s less important that you get accepted into a great college than that you be the kind of person who might get accepted. However, as is painfully evident, the whole upper-middle class desperation of “helicopter parents” and “tiger moms” and whatnot to get their kids into elite schools and away from the state university systems that they’ve helped to defund through their voting patterns creates a great deal of ugliness. I’m assuming there’s no news for you there.
Personally I am in the midst of this situation. My daughter is a junior and we’ll be headed to some campus visits next week during her spring break. Her SATs put here in the 99.7 percentile of test takers and the rest of her academic record reflects that as she looks to pursue some combination of math, physics, and possibly computer science. We live in a school system with a significant community of ambitious students (and families), where the top of the high school class regularly heads out to the Ivies. I’m sure it’s not as intense as the environment of elite private schools in NYC but it’s palpable. This also has me thinking back to when I was headed out to college, as a smart kid (“class bookworm” as my yearbook will evidence) in an unremarkable high school, first-generation college grad going to a state university, coming out of a family that had its financial struggles until my mom remarried when I was a teenager. I don’t mean to offer that as a sob story (because it isn’t) but only that my own background gives me a lot of misgivings about the value and faith we put in this race to get into elite colleges.
I think it’s easy to see the ideological investments underlying the way we try to answer this question. Part of the American Dream is believing that education is the great democratizer, that it is meritocratic, and that in the end, overall, the brightest and best students are rewarded. Part of that is also believing that intelligence is not really a genetic trait and that socio-economic contexts are not a roadblock; almost anyone can succeed if they put their mind to it. For those on the Left (i.e. the circles I mostly travel in), there is a clear recognition of socio-economics as largely driving opportunities for academic success, and that’s hard to deny when one looks at the big picture. So that tells you that on a societal level education on its own does not solve economic disparity. However, it doesn’t tell you much on the individual level where ultimately what you want is some sense of agency rather than having your agency taken away by socioeconomics or admissions boards.
Derek Thompson describes the situation he is investigating as affecting the top “3%” of high schoolers, though it’s probably more like 1% if one is thinking of the top 20-25 schools in the country. Here’s what I think about those kids, including my daughter… They’re going to do ok if they manage to avoid getting a nervous breakdown trying to get into college. Maybe an Ivy-league degree is a surer route to being CEO or senator; it almost certainly is. But you’re probably as likely to be a professional athlete or movie star as become one of those, particularly if you aren’t already a senator’s son (cue the Creedence). Even though we’re still talking about tens of thousands of families, focusing on the top 1 or even 3 percent seems fairly odd. In all honesty it probably is a little beyond the scope of pure individual will to get into a top, top college. You probably do need some natural-born smarts and some socio-economic advantages to have a decent shot.
If we’re going to have a conversation about the importance of where you go to college, it makes sense to me to talk instead about the students in the middle of the college bell curve. What’s the difference between the university ranked #50 and the one ranked #150? Is there a big difference between Florida, Buffalo, Tennessee, and West Virginia? Setting aside the Ivy bias, what’s at stake at going to Emory or Virginia (a top 20 school) rather than Wisconsin or Illinois or RPI (a top 50 school)? From school #20 to school #150 we’re still talking about students in the top 5-20% of SAT test-takers. I’m thinking all those students are reasonably well-positioned to get a good education that leads to a rewarding career. And what’s the difference between the student in the 80th percentile of college applicants who goes to a big public university and one in the 50th or 60th who goes to a regional state college? And how do these differ from the ones coming up through community colleges?
It seems to me that those are much more interesting questions than the ones about the top 1 or 2%, even if that’s where my own kid is drawing my personal attention.