Ivy schmivy

Gregg Easterbrook, ever a heretic, thinks going to a super-selective college is not the essential ticket to human happiness, wealth or power. In Who Needs Harvard? in The Atlantic (non-subscription link thanks to Volokh), and a follow-up interview, Easterbrook argues that students will do just as well at second-tier schools such as Michigan, Virginia, Grinnell, Claremont McKenna, Vanderbilt, Emory, etc.

The twenty-five Gotta-Get-Ins of the moment, according to admissions officers, are the Ivies (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale), plus Amherst, Berkeley, Caltech, Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Pomona, Smith, Stanford, Swarthmore, Vassar, Washington University in St. Louis, Wellesley, and Williams. Some students and their parents have always been obsessed with getting into the best colleges, of course. But as a result of rising population, rising affluence, and rising awareness of the value of education, millions of families are now in a state of nervous collapse regarding college admissions. Moreover, although the total number of college applicants keeps increasing, the number of freshman slots at the elite colleges has changed little. Thus competition for elite-college admission has grown ever more cutthroat.

Easterbrook’s sources estimate the top 100 colleges, or even the top 200, provide a good education and access to opportunities. (He does say that law firms can be quite snobby about hiring graduates of elite colleges.)

My daughter, a Stanford graduate, can’t get a callback for a part-time job at a book store. (She’s the unpaid managing editor of Citizen Culture (“The Magazine For The Young Intellectual”), which was launched yesterday.) On the flip side, she’s interviewing for a tutoring job, allegedly paying up to $60 an hour, to help wealthy Manhattan kids get into elite colleges. The tutoring service only hires graduates of Ivy and Ivy-equivalent universities.

Update: University of California at Santa Cruz is “the most stoned campus”, says a Rolling Stone feature. Only it’s not, really, says the San Jose Merc.

In the latest survey of the Princeton Review — which ranks schools on just about everything — UCSC doesn’t even make the Top 10 “reefer madness” list. It’s rated No. 17. Bard College, a small liberal arts school on New York’s Hudson River, was No. 1.

Another hit to mainstream media credibility. And, yes, I think Rolling Stone rolled into the mainstream quite awhile ago.

About Joanne


  1. The right school depends on the student’s goals. For example, some of the top schools on the list don’t have an undergraduate major in business. So if that specific training is important to the student, then he should look elsewhere.

    Part of what you’re paying for with the top schools is the prestige. Part of it is the access to the alumni network. And part of it is the opportunity to attend classes and socialize (read: network) with young people from the most influential families.

    In some majors there needs to be a critical mass of very bright students in order to run a wide array of excellent upper level courses. This is more likely to happen at the best schools; at a second-tier school some programs may be stronger than others.

    In the end it depends on the student’s goals — and how well-formed they are.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If a business could fire someone for not meeting the requirements of the position during probation without subjecting themselves to multi-million dollar lawsuit peril, less attention would be paid to non-objective measurements.

  3. Beleagured Michael Eisner went to Denison, long derided as a school of the dumb rich. I don’t know exactly how dumb he is, but he sure is rich. David Geffen, medial mogul, didn’t go to college. I don’t think Bill Gates’s former Harvard chums had much to do with his fortune.

  4. Richard Heddleson says:

    Try Linden Tree. It’s nice and reachable by bike.

  5. Seriously, this whole idea of networking is highly overrated.

    For one thing, hardly anyone ends up practicing in the field they studied originally.

    More important, if you were in a hiring position would you look for the best candidate, or go through your college yearbook from 20 years ago and try to figure out who needs help?

    So much for networking.

  6. I was accepted into Columbia University and Rice, but chose to go to good ol’ University of Texas at Arlington. Why? Well, number one, it is completely free. I won’t be in debt until I’m fifty to pay for it. A lot of my family members went there, so I have connections with the higher-ups in my department. And it’s only an hour away from home, so I can go home whenever I need.

    And I already have a job promised to me when I graduate in two years.

    Going to a really expensive school doesn’t do much but get you into debt. Going to a less prestigious school but getting very high grades and remaining active in campus life will get you just as far.

  7. Mad Scientist says:

    boo, I think you miss the points of a) how some people practice what they study, and b) what networking is all about.

    First off, most (not all, but most) people who majored in the sciences and engineering still practice in the field. If they don’t directly practice, they are in a position to use that knowledge and usually direct people who practice what their undergraduate field was.

    As for networking, when I was with Mobil (before Exxon bought them out), some people got preferential treatment depending upon what school they were from (local management decisions such as hiring co-ops, or the newly graduated). Perdue and MIT were two places that seemed to be somewhat overrepresented there.

    Why? Because the hiring manager would always go to their alma mater to interview and do initial screens. So, if Joe graduated from Princeton, and went back to Princeton to interview some fresh shiny faces and invited three for on-site interviews, in all likelihood, one would now be working for him. Hence overrepresentation by some select schools.

    So the networking is not so much with your peers (i.e., your classmates), but with the previous generations. Another take on the same idea is with fraternities/sororities (why not give a brother a break, even if he was in a different chapter). That is not to say that a classmate won’t help you out, if possible.

    Networking is quite important when making a change in employment. I get referals from headhunters all the time; the headhunter invariably got my name from a colleague who knows me and my work. I have also referred colelagues to headhunters when they were on the market.

  8. “Brand” seems even more important in higher education than in most aspects of business. When Nucor entered the steel business, for example, people bought their steel even though they didn’t have a fancy brand like US Steel or Bethlehem…because the people doing the buying actually cared about the characteristics of the steel. Many of the customers for higher education, on the other hand, don’t care all that much about the characteristics of the education provided…what they care about is the name on the diploma, which they have been convinced is key to their future success.

  9. Aside from any prestige and networking factors, what separates the top universities from the next tier is the general strength across the institution. Every school will have its strong and weak departments, but in the top schools even the relatively weak departments are pretty good.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    One of the down sides of the elite school is that a student, once accepeted, may hang around after changing majors a couple of times instead of sticking with what they want.

    How many so called smart students decide that they “really are not interested” in chemical engineering, biochemistry, etc after starting a Duke, Cal, Stanford and end up with a degree in History. Where is they had attended NCST or UC-Davis they may have stuck it out with their original major.

    Those are the people who their major used to not matter because they had degrees in subjects that did not matter (Chelsea Clinton, anyone) Now they just go to Law School or MBA and then use their contacts. However, with electronic screening of applicants the Ivied of the world are finding out that the degree in Humanaties or Religion does not get you past the initial screening today.

    Also, if the kid is from blue collar family, going to Duke to get a degree in sociology (or like degree) is probably a huge waste of time and money.

  11. T. H. Benton says:

    From what I’ve seen, blue-collar and lower middle-class students rarely get many contacts out of prestigious schools. They tend to find themselves isolated on campus and clustered with other unconnected kids like themselves.

    In general, it is “connections in, connections out.” The school just puts the seal of approval on the kids who already have it made.

    An exception might be students in fields where actual knowledge matters–the hard sciences, etc.

  12. superdestroyer says:


    Look at the degrees of the children of Clinton, Gore, Kerry, etc. They mainly stayed as far away as possible from the Hard Sciences. The children of the elite today are more interested in film school than in medical school.

  13. It all depends on what field you want to go into. You have to look at the individual departments, the professors and the research projects. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, then it’s perhaps better to start at a good state school and transfer after a couple of years. Some state university departments have better programs than the top 25, so you might not have to transfer anywhere. You also might find that transferring into your ideal college is easier than getting in as a Freshman. And, your ideal college as a Sophomore in college will probably be different than when you are a Junior/Senior in high school.

    I remember when the University of Utah was *the* place to go for computer graphics. (There are now many more good schools in this field.) Perhaps the business world is infatuated with the top 25, but those in the engineering and scientific community know which schools are the best for different fields and specialties – and they probably are not in the top 25!

  14. Michael Shirley says:

    Hey, Steve, the University of Utah is still pretty good in computer graphics. 🙂

  15. I’ve worked in IT most of my life. In my area there are one or two schools that are perferred, usually because of a corporate relationship with the school. The schools change and the flavor of social predjudices change with time. Schools can help a kid get their foot in the door. After that all bets are off.

  16. SuperD–Kerry has a daughter in med school, as did /does Gore. And Kerry’s girls haven’t lived with him much until the campaign. But kids of the famous aren’t much of a sample.

    I’d say anyone getting a degree in sociology is basically unemployable–blue-collar or not.

  17. Just one thing regarding “cutthroat” competition. I got into Harvard (am attending Duke–but not a sociology major!), and my parents didn’t sign me up for tutors, or send me off to expensive programs, or whatever. This leads me to believe that many of the stories you read about in newsmagazines about the extreme competition are rather overblown–most of the students I know here are simply children of ordinary white-collar parents, like doctors and lawyers, who studied hard but not insanely. I’m not sure where these journalists dig up the stereotypical parents driving their kid and spending thousands of dollars to get into elite schools, but in my experience it’s very, very atypical.

  18. superdestroyer says:


    I know that one of Kerry’s daughter is attending medical school (want to go into public health since I guess since does not want to really deal with patients).

    Of Gore’s children, Karenna (lawyer), Kristin (film school), Sarah (can’t find out), Al III (partying his way through Harvard).

    Chelsea Clinton (History major and failed to finish at Oxford).

    Another thing to remember about (white) kids and parents wanting into elite schools, it that they are feeling the overwhelming prescence of Asian at the secondary school. If Chelsea really had stayed with Biochemistry at Stanford at least she would have seen a few white faces in her classes yet if she had attended UCLA, Penn State, etc, she could have ended up being the only white female face in the crowd of her molecular biology class.

  19. superdestroyer says:


    According to Princeton Review, the three most popular majors at Duke University are
    Most popular majors:
    Economics, General
    Psychology, General
    Public Policy Analysis


    Now are you claiming that most of the white collar kids at Duke started out as PUblic Policy Analysis or Economics majors. How many fellow students started out at Pre-Med but decided to switch to something else?

  20. superdestroyer-

    I don’t understand what you are asking me. Neither my point nor the original post had anything to do with selection of majors. I’m not even sure what “economics, general” means. I’ll assume they are referring to the A.B., as opposed to the B.S., degree, though I’m not certain of that.

    For what it’s worth, I believe–and every economic analysis I’ve ever read agrees–that there is some positive economic impact to attending an elite college, but that the impact of a “good” major matters more. So in some sense you are right that if a student goes to, say, NCSU and majors in engineering, he is probably better off than a Duke student who starts in e-school and then transfers into sociology. However, the higher dropout rates from almost every public school almost certainly overwhelm this effect.

  21. Steven makes an excellent point about graduation rates. In terms of one’s economic future, dropping out of a state school is worse than not going in the first place. In many parts of the US, the public universities have appalling graduation rates.

    Lucky for the students, they have plenty of choices.

  22. “appalling drop out rates”… maybe their acceptance rates and practices are even more appalling!

  23. Michael Shirley wrote:

    Hey, Steve, the University of Utah is still pretty good in computer graphics. 🙂

    …Indeed, but many of its graduates have spread to colleges and universities around the country and the field has specialized. I did my work in CG about 30 years ago at the U. of Michigan with Dick Phillips (Aerospace) and Bert Herzog (IOE) using *IG on Tektronix 4010s. SIGGRAPH was new and everything was pretty exciting. Does anyone remember a 1974 book called Computer Lib/Dream Machines by Ted Nelson? It was a required book for one of my CG courses. Sorry, I guess I’m getting old.

    I got a chance to go to MIT, but stayed at UofM. This relates to my previous point that for engineering and scientific fields, this “top 25” is pretty meaningless.


  1. Nykola.com says:

    The Great Educational Hope Part II

    I know a little something about the educational elite. Hate to say it, but despite my best attempts to resist indoctrination and uppity-ness, “I are one”. I spent my entire educational career (preschool through college) in predominately white, privat…

  2. Nykola.com says:

    From the “Cry Me a River” Files

    Martha Stewart, domestic Queen of all things trivial and unimportant–like how to wallpaper the drawers of the scrap booking desk in your craft room–today asked Manhattan Federal Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum to begin serving her 5-month term as a fe…

  3. Nykola.com says:

    The Great Educational Hope II

    I know a little something about the educational elite. Hate to say it, but despite my best attempts to resist indoctrination and uppity-ness, “I are one”. I spent my entire educational career (preschool through college) in predominately white, private …