What’s in a Name? – College Prestige and the Quality of Life.

Many parents think that the end of the world is at hand if their children fail to get into an “elite” college.  A sense of parental inadequacy follows and college-related conversations at cocktail parties are avoided.  Malaise sets in; sadness is on the prowl.

A few years ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excerpt from Thomas Sowell’s “Economic Facts and Fallacies” (Basic Books, 2008).  In the excerpt, Sowell essentially debunked the theory that the quality of education at a prestige college is necessarily the cause of later success in life.  He noted:

•    Most prestigious colleges get much of their fame from the research of the staff which takes them away from teaching.  Sowell found that professors in research institutes spend less than half of their time with teaching as compared with teachers in liberal arts colleges who spend two thirds of their time with teaching duties.

•    “Small colleges dominate the list of the 10 institutions with the highest percentage of students going on to receive Ph.D.’s.”

•    In 2006, Sowell found that out of the 50 largest American corporations, only 4 had Ivy League degrees and “just over half graduated from state colleges, city colleges, or community colleges”.

Sowell also pointed out that it is especially hard to measure the impact of the education at the elite colleges since many of the entering students come from privileged families.  So independent of the quality of education at the college, they are likely to rise to the top of many professions as a result of the family’s connections.  Some might suggest that there may have been an example of this effect by a fairly recent resident of a large white house inside the Washington Beltway.

Moreover, since more qualified kids often get into the prestige universities, it is hard to measure the school’s effects as compared to less selective colleges who deal with less academically gifted students.

When the personal variables have been reduced in studies (kids who were accepted at Harvard but who chose a less prestigious college or students with similar SAT scores who went to Harvard and less selective colleges), the impact of the “name” college was still unclear.  As such, the conclusion may be drawn that the added value of a name brand doesn’t matter as much as the qualities the student brings to the institution.

It may be that it is not the name or even the education by a college that counts in the long run but, rather, the effects of bringing gifted kids together on a selective campus that constitutes the primary operative variable.  Maybe it is not what you know that is behind the alleged benefits of attending an elite college but who you know.  In the final analysis, it may be something as simple as the circle of friends that creates measurable benefits among colleges.  Those kinds of talented students are present at any post-secondary school across the nation but there are likely to be a higher percentage of them on a very selective college campus.  I always tell my young charges that, everything else being equal, you should try to attend the college with the smartest kids.  That network, marked by talent and purpose and often begun in college, is likely to yield certain benefits throughout one’s life.  Thus it may not be the college’s name that creates opportunity but, rather, the student’s vision, talent, character and school friends that make the difference regardless of the prestige or ranking of the college.

So the message is:  Find a college that is to be a venue where the student’s potential is likely to take root.  It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks about the place; the sole judge should be the student.  If it isn’t an Ivy League school, parents will get over it as they focus on the person you have become, not necessarily the person your parents wanted you to be in their search for parental validation.  Both of my daughters attended “second-tier” colleges and became “first-tier” human beings.  Sowell reminds us to pay attention to the important stuff, a place that works for the student and a place that over a lifetime will be remembered fondly as some of the best years of one’s life.

“Thomas Sowell is a scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  This material was taken by The Chronicle for Higher Education from his book, Economic Facts and Fallacies, published by Basic Books.  Copyright©2008 by Thomas Sowell.”

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