Friday, July 22, 2005

The Power of the Ivy League Brand

Anita Hill thinks the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court is a step back for diversity. She worries that in the quest for confirmability, we will see more and more rich white males being nominated to the Supreme Court because rich white males are the ones most likely to meet the high standard of Ivy League education, Supreme Court clerkship and Beltway insider credentials.

Hill may have a point buried somewhere in there—even forgetting that Alberto Gonzales was widely assumed to be the most confirmable choice available. But, wait, Alberto Gonzales, like Roberts, is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Which brings me to my real point (inspired by Hill’s editorial):

The Ivy League (particularly Harvard, Yale and Princeton) has done a great job of branding and selling itself. With an increasing number of colleges and people with college degrees, it’s amazing that we still give deference to a few old, elite schools.

But I, for one, refuse to believe that the Ivy League schools provide a significantly better education than do many other schools. This is not based on any statistics or research (there isn’t any as far as I can tell) but on personal observation. I’ve known and worked with a lot of Ivy League grads and the only thing that distinguishes them from their non-Ivy League peers is their unwieldy debt (those that weren’t independently wealthy, that is). Otherwise, Ivy League grads are about as capable and knowledgeable as anyone else with a college degree from a good university.

I’m not saying Harvard and Yale shouldn’t be respected—I’m just saying that they aren’t any better than many other institutions of higher learning. They’ve just branded themselves better. What they sell is not really a great education—it’s prestige and great contacts. That’s why, even to this day, Ivy Leaguers are found at the very top of every profession—particularly in Washington politics. George W. Bush: Yale. John Kerry: Yale. Bill Clinton: Yale. John Roberts: Harvard.

But most of us, when it came time to go to college or grad school, could not afford the Ivy League or did not get in or did not want to go that far from home. But that in no way means that those of us who went to Bard or Kenyan or The University of Illinois or Trinity University or UCLA or any number of other great but “less prestigious” universities received any less of an education or deserve any less of a shot at the top positions. Right?

So here’s what I’m suggesting. Stop buying into the brand image. Stop being enamored with that Ivy League name. Don’t discount Ivy League grads but don’t afford them any extra points because of it. Five years out of school (heck, even right out of school) it’s what you’ve done and what you can do that should matter—not your degree. Holding Ivy Leaguers in higher esteem only helps create an immobile class system where entry to the top tiers is too-often afforded not by consistent merit but by educational status—a status that was, for most of us, determined before our 18th birthdays when we chose a college.

This is not a monumental problem, clearly. But it is a real issue and an annoyance that’s grated on me since I moved to New York City after college and found myself regularly discriminated against in my profession for no reason greater than the fact that I was not Ivy League. It’s a discrimination that clearly continues all the way up the ladder. And it’s one made possible in large part by our own willingness to buy their brand.

With so many great schools and so many talented men and women from across the nation, there really is no longer a need to hold just a handful of universities in such absurdly high esteem.


At 12:36 PM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...

WOOOHOOOO, a topic on which I'm (or I use to be) a tiny bit of an expert.

Okay, I won't go that far...I have some knowledge in the area.

Your education isn't something that's merely branded to you for you to purchase and then consume. Since the consumer, in the case of higher education, plays such a large role in the quality of the consumed good, then it's very hard to argue that one school give a measureably better education than another without some broad comparisons. In other words, comparing individuals you know from various institutions isn't going to help you arrive at any useful conclusions about the quality of education around the country.

There are a lot of variables to consider here, too many to write in a comment.

I will say that I disagree with you when you say that elite institutions sell prestige and contacts rather than great educations (or greater educations). It would be hard to argue that elite institutions don't have a more accomplished faculty overall, don't receive more research money coming in or aren't more selective in their student bodies. Do these variables translate into being able to offer a better education overall? I would argue yes. Does this translate into every graduate actually receiving a better education? Don't be silly, right?

Also, what other commonalities exist between people like Bush, Kerry and Clinton, et al? They're all Uber-achievers. Regardless of their education, they all demanded success of themselves and did whatever it took to succeed.

Yes, perception of prestige plays a role and someone with a piece of paper from Harvard isn't always smarter or doesn't always have a better education than someone with a piece of paper from Trinity University...but this doesn't lead to drawing a conclusion that these schools don't offer a better education.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

There is no emperical evidence for us to mull over here--and even if there was, how can you realistically measure how good an education is? But, Rob my friend, a lack of facts has never stopped either of us from debating so...

Does Yale put out smart, capable people. Yep. Would those same people be just as smart and capable if they went to a less prestigious, but still very good school? Almost without a doubt. What they carry away from Yale is not a better education but a better line on their resume. And they know that going in. That's why so many people apply to Ivy League schools. It's not so much about what you get there as it is what you get afterwards.

My point is that an education is NOT a brand and yet many in our society insist on treating it as if it were. As if those who went to Harvard or Yale come with a pre-approved, fully inspected stamp and those who didn't require more scrutiny.

I think that's needlessly elisist and I think it throws up unfair roadblocks.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...

Yeah, I think the difference here is between the words "better" and "capable"

Also, data DOES exist for a variety of variables. Matriculation rates, instructor to student ratios, graduation rates, % of tenure-track faculty with PhDs, diversity in course-offerings, amount of research dollars coming into universities, # of peer-review journal publications from faculty, how selective a school is, endowment size or $ to student ratio, golf cart to student ratio, etc. The question is, should we or can we use this data to suggest that some schools (not necessarily Ivy League) provide a better education (not necessarily more capable students). The issue I take with your argument isn't about producing capable students, it's your point that it's simply about prestige and a name.

Now, how does this translate into the business world where some people get an interview and some don't??

It's too impractical and too expensive for organizations to interview and scrutinize every resume that comes across the desk. The interview list has to be narrowed somehow. The first level of scrutiny is or should be years of applicable experience. The second is education level/degree achieved. The more tight the employment market is, the more important the place where you get this education is.

Assuming you can't interview everyone, how else are you going to narrow the field? Perhaps applications should require essays or specific questions that applicants should answer to assess their abilities relative to the job requirements.

At 2:00 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I think you just listed off the entire criterea used by U.S. News and World Report to produce their yearly rankings.

Certainly you can at least group universities together in tiers, but flat-out rankings are silly. Quality in education would best be quantified through a pretty serious test. Known exists, so we can't really tell which shcool is better when both are pretty good.

Now, I never said it was simply about prestige. I was saying that, amongst the best schools, the real difference between Harvard and, say, Kenyon College in Ohio is prestige. Oh, you can find lots of differences in all the criterea you listed, but from my experience I've never met a graduate from Kenyon who couldn't hold his/her own against a Harvard grad. Not one.

You said:

Assuming you can't interview everyone, how else are you going to narrow the field? Perhaps applications should require essays or specific questions that applicants should answer to assess their abilities relative to the job requirements.

This is where brand equity comes in. Harvard grads get bumped to the front of the line because people know Harvard is good. But there are a lot of lesser known schools that produce students just as capable. If a company is going to use education as a deciding factor in interviewing or hiring, shouldn't they make an effort to know more than just the brand name schools?

I finally got hired in publishing not because I was qaulified (which I was--or at least equally qaulified to the Ivy League grads) but because I finally was interviewed by someone who knew Trinity University and knew it was a top tier school. Before that, people would look at where I went to college and shut down.

So, bascially, I was punished because my school had very little brand equity in New York City. Of course, in Texas being from Trinity can open all kinds of doors because the brand equity is very high.

My point isn't that the quality of your school shouldn't be a factor but that that, if it IS to be a factor, the list of "good schools" should be more inclusive and cover 50 or so schools rather than the 10 or so it seems to cover now. I also think, the older you get, the further down the list the school you went to should be in terms of determining qualifications.

At 2:00 PM, Anonymous corey said...

My 2 cents on the subject..

I'm married to an Ivy League grad, and she has said on more than one occasion that she paid (actually her dad did) $120,000 for a good education and even better connections.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...

yeah...the USNWR rankings are just another agency collecting data and ranking applicants using the data. Read more into the rankings and you're in fantasy land. It's no secret in acadamia that once you know how to correctly answer the questions on US New's application for the rankings, the better you do (without necessarily changing any of the actual stats, just reporting them differently). On any ranking where you see a school jump from 15th to 4th...that's just crazy.

anyway, nice rant about US News rankings...

The bias you speak of is also fairly specific to insdustries. If all the publishing companies are in New York, they're more likely to either hire from ivy league or regional schools. This isn't an elitist ivy league's a fimiliarity bias of whoever's hiring. Lawyers who graduate from St. Mary's law school in San Antonio get hired all the time in the area by prestigious law firms. Those same graduates probably couldn't get a job in Boston or New York as St. Mary's is a tier III school at best in the USNWR rankings. Would you have felt the same bias applying for publishing jobs in San Antonio or Austin...probably not.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Bias changes based on region. That's true. But my point is a Harvard grad is going to go far just about everywhere because they have the Harvard name tied to them.

A Harvard grad in Austin would have a heck of a lot better luck than a UT grad in New York City.

But the regional bias does cause the Ivy League issue to be magnified in the North East. The fact that most of the nation's power centers are in the North East makes the problem that much worse.

Final point--judging people on where they went to college is only useful if you can get past the glare of the big brands and recognize that more than a handful of schools produce truly expeptional people

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abolish snobbery? Won't happen in your lifetime.

At 6:27 PM, Blogger Laniker said...

In addition to their prestige, Ivy League schools are also among the worst in grade inflation.

In the 1990's, over half of the grades given at Harvard were A or A-. In 2001, 91% of Harvard graduated with honors, 51% at Yale and 44% at Princeton.

Now, I know that a lot of the students at these schools work really hard, but everyone knows that. If Ivy League schools are going to have the prestige with their name, at least they should distinguish between their graduates. Otherwise, the only thing their degree is good for is to tell you that student was really good in high school.

At 8:30 PM, Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

laniker - that 91% stat is amazing. But it would be wrong to automatically equate lots of A's with grade inflation. Think about it - most, if not all, students who go to Harvard were straight A students in High School. They worked their asses off again and again to get those A's. Now they come to Harvard and - if I'm reading you right - just over half get A's, instead of ... what, 98%?

That's not grade inflation ... that's a tough damn school.

At 12:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I go to Dartmouth... it's one of those lesser Ivies where we all bitch about the attention Harvard gets, so I feel I straddle both sides of the prestige debate. In fact my dad didn't know it was part of the Ivy League until several months after I got in. But down to business:

Do Harvard, Yale, Princeton (and the rest of us to a much lesser extent) get unwarranted prestige. Yes, it's Harvard... the world equates Harvard with excellence. And it should. It is an amazing school which accepts very talanted students to be taught by top faculty.

What the world needs to realize isn't that Harvard doesn't deserve its prestige, but rather that it is possible for other schools to turn out equally students, even if some of them do so in smaller proportion.


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