Every few months someone writes an article blaming elite colleges – and in particular the Ivy League – for all of the problems in higher education in the US.
This time, it’s the New Republic. This author, William Deresiewicz, actually comes from within academia, so he at least has some first hand experience. However, he wastes most of the article attacking a caricature of the Ivy League which, in his mind, is the root of all evil in education.
Ultimately, the author wants more investment in public education. He would like to see the current annual college admissions frenzy calm down, and would like students to spend less time on resume building and more on following their real interests. He would like colleges to have more economic diversity and to focus more on education as an intellectual exercise than as professional training.
These all address real problems in American higher education, yet his focus on the Ivy League (and similar institutions) as being the foremost group perpetuating these problems is misguided. Nowhere does he mention the need-blind admissions process – where students are admitted without direct knowledge of their financial situation (though this can often be gleaned from the rest of the application) nor the generous financial aid policies making elite universities even more affordable than even the local flagship public university for most families. He uses unwarranted hyperbole, stating that elite college students have completely eschewed politics and academia in favor of finance and consulting. In fact, the elite colleges do a better job addressing these problems than many less selective institutions.
Deresiewicz faults the Ivy League for its lack of economic diversity and yet notes that the Yale admissions session he was involved in actually penalized a student for seemingly trying too hard to build a resume while giving a boost to applicants with hardship indicators, such as having parents who never attended college. There certainly aren’t enough students from poor or even middle class families, but one cannot say that the colleges don’t care enough to even try to do something about it.
The author complains that students’ education is focused solely on professional development yet he spent his entire academic career at Columbia and Yale, neither of which even offers professional undergraduate majors outside engineering. Professional development at these schools comes outside the classroom. In the classroom, they are some of the foremost proponents of arts an sciences education (Columbia in particular). Anyone who has spent time among undergrads at elite colleges would laugh at the assertion that students come to class looking like they are prepared for a job interview.
Deresiewicz declares that society is too focused on prestige yet somehow Williams and Pomona are examples of elite bastions of privilege while Wesleyan and Mount Holyoke are merely “second tier” and thus offer a better education. Making such distinctions is absurd when all the institutions are elite and all largely draw from the same pool of high school graduates. Even more absurdly, he believes that it is typical for upper middle class communities to scorn those to go to such a lowly institution as Penn State. To the best of my knowledge no such community exists. Perhaps everyone the author knows lives in a Park Avenue coop and obsesses over getting their toddler admitted to one of the most selective preschools on the Upper East Side. Even there, I suspect that children are more likely to end up at a place like Penn State than at Penn. It seems that the problem is more with the author than with the institutions he criticizes.
It’s convenient to blame the elite institutions for the problems in education but ultimately wrong. If the author wanted to argue for more support of public education, he should have actually written about public education. Things like declining public support, reduction in tenure track faculty, de-emphasizing traditional arts and sciences fields, and lack of affordability are important issues to write about. Of course, that will get fewer views than attacking the top private colleges.