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.