Show me the money?

The headline of Dante Chinni's Sunday Washington Post Magazine article gets straight to the point: "Heaven's Gate: Will gaining admission to one of the nation's elite colleges guarantee a prosperous future–or just a mountain of debt?"

"An Ivy League education has always been an American dream," the teaser for Chinni's piece notes. "But is the cachet worth the cash?"

It is a bit surprising that the Post's "Education Review" section has adopted such a reductionist, consumerist approach (maybe not that surprising, considering the intended audience). The "show me the money" tone of the story borders on the crass. Is a liberal arts education designed solely to insure "an instant pedigree, future wealth and an opportunity to mix with the country's next generation of movers and shakers"?

Perhaps this may come as a shock to Chinni or the "striver parents" he describes, but it's not always about the Benjamins. Some Ivy League graduates do not chase big salaries and financial comfort. Some teach in public schools, some go into nonprofit work, others pursue art or music or other generally low-paying fields. Some stay in academia or scientific research, passing on private sector jobs that would pay more, because they love the work and want to advance knowledge in their field.

I know some of these elite college graduates who have not thrived financially and yet treasure their four years in New Haven or Hanover or Providence: they valued the intellectual stimulation of their schooling, the exposure to ideas, the contact with amazing faculty members, and the intellectual connection with like-minded classmates. They didn't attend college to "build a network" or increase their net worth.

For those who insist on a strictly financial cost-benefit analysis of higher education, every study I've seen suggests that college graduates not only earn more, but are also better prepared for the continuous retooling and life-long learning that the 21st century global economy will demand. As to whether an elite private college is a better choice than a top-ranked state university (or for that matter, a non name-brand school): I'd argue that the prospective student should rely on their own best judgment (not their parents!) about where they will be most comfortable.

At NYU, where I teach, I've encountered several transfer students who found their way to Washington Square only after learning that they had paid too much attention to brand names or parental pressure and had not followed their gut about which school fitted them best.

I'll leave it to the cultural anthropologists to explain why labelling eight schools with the adjective "Ivy League" makes them magically the "best." The Ivy League is a sports conference, started in 1954. Seven of the eight schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth and Brown) date from the colonial period; Cornell was founded in 1865. Two now-public colonial colleges were not included in the Ivy League, the College of William and Mary and Rutgers' University (then called Queen's College).

Imagine, for a moment, that the Ivy League replaced one member school with William and Mary or, say, Washington University in St. Louis. No doubt the dropped school would see its US News & World Report college ratings rank suffer, and the new Ivy would find applications on the rise. Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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3 thoughts on “Show me the money?

  1. I agree with some of what you say, but Ivy League ratings are not just semantics. For the reasons of longevity you mentioned, these schools also have some of the largest endowments (joined by Stanford et al), which gives them certain power in a)buying the brand name professors, b)granting tuition reprieves to poorer students and c)heading new departments and inititatives other schools could not. The host of other benefits from this is too innumerable to list. Although Ivies may be over valued and over-lusted (if that’s a word), their prestige does signify money. Like it or not, that money has corellating benefits for students.

  2. I see your point. You are spot on about the advantages of an endowment and tradition and why it helps the Ivies.

    But I am not arguing that the eight Ivy schools aren't among the best in the country. Instead, what I am is saying is that the College of William and Mary, which is currently ranked No. 31 in the USN&WR rankings, would move up into the top ten if accepted into the Ivy League Athletic Conference. The same would hold true for Vanderbilt (18) or Rice (17), without a single change in curriculum, student body, etc. (Why would they rise in the rankings? Their peer rating would rise and so would their yield, which would make them more "selective.")

    That being the case, a prospective college student should choose the school that makes sense in terms of their interests and what feels right–without considering the USN&WR numbers or what the neighbors are going to say. If your interest is performing arts, NYU or Northwestern or Ithaca College or the University of Miami or Carnegie Mellon are likely to be better choices than Dartmouth, for example.

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