Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Hastily Composed Rant Against Fancy-Pants Colleges

Apparently, adults are still telling children who will definitely be going to go to college that they should try to get into the best college possible. Moreover, apparently we teachers are actively encouraging our high-flying students to get into the highest-ranked college possible.

Here's my argument that this is an awful thing and that we should stop.

You'll learn more at the top-notch universities.

Let's start with the observation that universities don't typically do anything interesting, teaching-wise. The bread and butter and meat and potatoes and carrots and salmon of your college education is the lecture. And lecture isn't terribly effective, as kids know when they're in high school but seem to forget six months later at good old U of Suck, where all pedagogical sins are forgiven. If you're getting an education in lectures, you're not getting much of an education at all, at least not from your classroom time.

(As long as we're here: forcing students to figure out a way to learn despite your lousy teaching is not a valid way of teaching intellectual independence. Good teaching promotes independence, along with everything else.)

If you're being lectured to, then who cares where you go for your lectures? It just doesn't make sense, as far as learning goes.

So what are you paying for?

The big bill at a college is for everything besides the classroom. The costs of research. The costs of school spirit. The costs of food, board, and Spring Fling.

More charitably, you're getting as many clubs and hobbies as you can imagine. There's symphony and pop symphony and jazz orchestra and quartet and other quartet and chamber music and I'm clearly exhausting my knowledge of music but the point is that you have a lot of things you get to be involved in, OK? Lots of chances to play oboe, or plays sports, or basically express yourself and chase your interests in a social manner.

(I know this isn't news to you, but the children, they don't quite get it yet.)

If you want to pay for that, then go ahead, but I watch my college friends drop their hobbies right after school. If you want to grow your spirit, you need to figure out how to fit art into your life without the ready-made structure and convenience of campus.

Look, people care about what college you went to. They just do, right? Because it signals to employers that you're someone smart and capable. Are you really more capable? Well, it doesn't matter if it's true, because people treat it like it's true. Going to a fancy college helps you lead a comfortable life. It makes it easier to get your dream job, or even a regular job. You have the right to pursue comfort.

This is the argument I hear the most. It's the argument my family and mentors offered me when I was in high school. It's what I hear from college advisers, kids and teachers.

Let's consider an analogy.

Let's consider beauty.

Now, being beautiful helps you get ahead in this world. It's true! People judge you as relatively competent. If you're beautiful, it's more likely that you'll get the job, that you'll be paid what you deserve to be paid plus a little bit more. In short, being beautiful helps you lead a comfortable life, economically speaking.

Would we advise our friends and students to pursue beauty? To pay thousands and thousands for surgery, to take out loans for our wardrobes?

"No!" we would say. "That's all wrong. It's not comfort that makes a life meaningful and worthwhile. I mean, look, comfort is important, but at what cost? Why pursue comfort if it's just built on something as meaningless as your appearance. Besides, beauty can fade, and then what is your life built on? If your entire life is built around beauty, then even as your beauty fades you'll be forced to endlessly chase it, to create a delusional sense of your own attractiveness well-past it's due date. What's left then?"

"Besides, what about unattractive people? People will just have a worse life because they happened to be ugly? That's hardly fair, and it's downright wrong. I don't want to live in a world where we punish people for their appearance."

Every time an Honors student applies to Harvard, a child is going under the knife. Can we please stop pretending like this is a good idea?


  1. You're knocking down a straw man.

    The most valid argument for said fancy-pants colleges is, for me, one of circular logic. You go to them because we as a society believe they are the best, therefore then become the most selective, we send our best students there, and hence they are the best.

    Nothing beats being surrounded by "smart", focused, self-motivated and most likely successful people.

    1. What's your prediction?

      (1) Being surrounded by smart, focused, self-motivated people leads to better learning.

      (2) Being surrounded by said people leads to better economic and professional attainment?

    2. Clearly (2)...

      Do you think many people other than educators really put such a premium on "learning"?

      If there were, there would be more than a handful of K - 12 schools that eschewed number/letter grades for meaningful evaluations..

    3. Yeah, not sure what's the deal with educators caring about learning. Need to look in to that or something.

      Anyway, you picked (2), the claim that elite colleges help students advance economically and professionally, though not educationally.

      Excellent! I responded to (2) in the last third of my piece.

      Happy readings!

    4. The last third of your piece...

      "Look, people care about what college you went to. They just do, right? Because it signals to employers that you're someone smart and capable. Are you really more capable? Well, it doesn't matter if it's true, because people treat it like it's true."

      ...does not address my argument. Hence, why I initially said you're knocking down a straw man.

      Leave the snark out if you choose to respond to this. I was hoping to have a genuine conversation.

    5. I argued that fancy colleges can falsely signal to employers your value, and you're arguing that colleges afford you connections that advance your value without advancing your skills.

      I'm not denying that a fancy college will help your professional or economic standing. I agree that (2) is true.

      I think my arguments in that last third should apply equally to (2). Even though there are aspects of fancy pants colleges that undoubtedly yield economic benefits, I don't think we should be pushing most kids towards them.

      Compare: there are undoubtedly economic benefits of being more attractive, but that alone isn't enough to justify cosmetic surgery.

    6. Isn't the point of going to a fancy college peer selection? I thought it was all about networking. Both your friends and your professors are going to be very valuable to you as you find your place in the plutocracy.

      They facade of providing a more 'rigorous' education is about appearances to maintain their status as an elite institution. It's about status. You can't get the same status from a state school.

      Employers who give extra consideration to the fact that you went to an elite institution are valuing who you know rather than what you can do.

  2. Michael,

    One problem I see with your argument: You assume that the content is the same for subject courses - what if my degree from the fancy pants University covers subject matter in greater depth and detail than U of Suck?

    Is this enough reason to encourage high achieving students to get in to the best university possible?

    1. "...what if my degree from the fancy pants University covers subject matter in greater depth and detail than U of Suck?"

      Is this true?

    2. It is for a lot of institutions over here - certainly for Maths and several science and engineering subjects.

  3. Some other points to consider:

    1) The prestige of a college or university is often correlated with its endowment, which in turn is related to financial aid. It can be much cheaper to go to a well-endowed university.

    2) Generally teaching loads are smaller at more elite institutions. This doesn't always translate to a better experience for students, but for example at small liberal arts colleges it means the professors are more able to mentor students in individual research projects.

    3) On the other hand, at institutions with higher teaching loads you often find the best teachers. So the quality of the average class experience can be better at less elite universities.

    But overall I think it really depends on the student and what they want out of their college experience.

  4. Nik and Marshall, if we're talking seriously about the learning benefits of fancy pants schools, then I'm honestly happy. My experience leads me to think that fancy pants schools don't add much, learning-wise, but if they turn out to? I'd be fine with that.

    Also, financial aid and costs are obviously relevant.

    What matters more than the answers are what questions we're asking. I'm very comfortable with "What school is going to be best for learning?" I'm also comfortable with "What school is going to keep you best out of debt?"

    I'm very unhappy with "What school will most easily improve other's perceptions of your ability?"

  5. Sorry, but I don't think I really buy either premise of your argument. Either that you don't get a better education at a higher ranked school, or that you shouldn't get a degree from a better school to help you make more money.

    Let's deal with the better education part first. I agree that there is basically no difference in the education you would get from the #1 ranked school and from the #10 ranked school, or even from the #100 ranked school. But I do think there is a difference between the education you would get at the #1 ranked school and the #1000 ranked school. Now that difference may not necessarily come in the classroom (though if half your intro chem class had to take remedial math, I don't think you're covering as much material), but you can definitely get more out of being surrounded by other smart motivated individuals who will push you in more difficult and more interesting directions. I'm not saying you will, but I'm saying you can. Of course, at some of the smaller schools, I think you might get a better education, either from more contact with the professors, or opportunities for research, or more specialized programs (though this last point would depend on you knowing exactly what you wanted to do going into college, which is rare).

    Now for the economic argument. Or rather, you rejecting the economic argument with a bad analogy. I mean, besides it being a little squicky (though South Koreans would certainly disagree), what's wrong with getting plastic surgery to make more money? If you turned down the opportunity to spend $2000 to make an extra $500 a year for the rest of your life, you'd either be stupid, or 4 years away from retirement. I agree that this is oversold as an argument, but it's still a good argument. Basically, the top 3-4 schools are possibly (depending on your ambitions) worth spending money on (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, maybe MIT or Princeton depending), then after that the next 50 or so in each field are fairly interchangeable, so go to whichever of the good schools are cheapest (likely your in state public research institution if you're lucky enough to have one). If you want to spend money to go to another one, fine, but realize you're doing that for reasons other than education and job prospects.

    1. "What's wrong with getting plastic surgery to make more money?"

      Thank you so much for engaging with this line of argument, because I really think it's central to what I'm doing here.

      I do think that there's something wrong with encouraging lots of children to try to change their appearance for money. You don't. We should have a nice long conversation about this.

      We should also remember, though, that we're flinging around a lot of falsifiable claims here. For instance, you claim that the top 3-4 schools are a great investment. This, though, is far from obvious. Click here for a nice summary of the debate.

    2. As to your last paragraph: Yes, for most people those top 3-4 aren't significantly better than the next 50 or so, but if you have national or global ambitions, there are probably 0.001% of jobs that are heavily biased in their favor. But in many cases, you could probably get those connections just as easily from grad school as you could from undergrad.

      As to the plastic surgery: I think I'm getting your point a little better now. For me, as an individual, making a choice for myself, you will have a very hard time convincing me there is anything wrong with it. However, I will grant you that cultural pressures towards it do squick me out a little bit.

      So yeah, counselors/teachers/parents trying to push kids into schools based on some mostly fraudulent concept of "eliteness" (again, not that I don't think there are differences, just that they aren't very fine grained), that can be a problem. But a student sitting down with their parents and saying "This is what I want to do, and I think this school gives me the best opportunity to do it" or even "I have no idea what I want to do, and this school will best let me explore my options" seems just fine to me.

  6. Honors programs at publicly funded universities are an excellent choice for quality instruction with a lower price tag. They can be more comfortable for middle and lower economic class students, leading to an increased chance at completion of a degree. But they will never have the connections and quantity of doors that open due to the name of the fancy school. Fair? No. Real? Yes.

  7. Something a lot of commenters seem to be overlooking is that Michael doesn't seem (to me) to be arguing that Fancy Pants Universities will increase your chances of making more money in life (it certainly will); but that it shouldn't be this way. Sending students to the tautologically-defined "best" schools will necessarily create an education and standard-of-living gap. Of course, students should be free to make their own choices and apply to whatever school they please–after all, going to a state U will mean brushing up with a lot more people who really couldn't care less. However, as educators, I agree with Michael that we shouldn't be encouraging this system–students should be encouraged to consider a lot of options, and not pigeonholed into some certain schools just because they are "better" (and they are, though not in every respect, clearly, since you'll only ever be surrounded by other privileged people, at least). Pushing a student to the most elite schools possible further emphasizes to them that where you go is the only thing that matters. And again, while this may be true to some extent (there seems to be some consensus of that), it's not the kind of world I want to live in.

  8. Well, there are two different questions here:

    1. What would be the best option for a single individual?(imagine a relative)

    2. What would be the best option for a society?

    To answer the first question, I would say that yes, I would encourage a relative to apply to the best possible college, for the obvious reason that I want them to have a better life, plain and simple.

    As for the health of society, there can be no doubt that our system of "education" perpetuates social and economic inequality. I don't think telling people not to apply to fancy colleges is any solution, it's like trying to fight economic inequality by tellin people not to be greedy. People are naturally greedy, and I'll admit I wouldn't mind being very rich myself. As far as systematic solutions I would say we should change the way elite colleges select their students. Get rid of "holistic admissions," rely solely on objective metrics(grades+test scores), race(I need one concession to the ruling class), and, most importantly, luck. You are never going to convince the world to get rid of elite universities or suddenly say they are not "better," elitism, like greed, is natural. But by including luck as a factor in admissions the elite universities will no longer be able to say they have the absolute objectively best student body, they will have many students who got in based on luck and many other students who were rejected and went to state schools.

    1. I don't buy your distinction. Individuals have an obligation to do the right thing for society.

      Of course, we don't need to be martyrs. But not going to an elite university flies well below martyrdom.