On Elite v. Less-Elite Institutions

So I finally got around to reading the article that Dan blogged about a few days ago about the disadvantages of an Ivy League education. I have some thoughts on this based on my experience, which is the following: my undergraduate education was at an Ivy League school. I am currently a PhD student and teach at the flagship campus of a public university that's huge and pretty good, but not elite (on the order of Ohio State and Boston University). I also got an MA in a different field at a university that's a bit better than my current one, but not top ranked - although it is nationally famous for being tops in the field in which I got my MA.

1) He's overall correct that going to an Ivy tends to inculcate an unwarranted sense of one's own superiority. Students who are of a more socially curious bent will probably be rid of this on their own, just as being socially curious tends to make people from any socio-economic class less sheltered.

2) I think the fetishization of the Ivy League, or elite universities in general, is waaaaay overblown. There are vanishingly few jobs and graduate programs that seem really to require an Ivy education, as opposed to excellent performance at a decent university. The syllabi for my classes are the same as the syllabi for similar classes at elite universities, and my ability to teach the material is (I think) as good or better than is often the case at such institutions.

3) There can be surprising opportunities at a state school. Many state schools have department that exceed the Ivies in their excellence. My husband is a case in point. His undergrad was a giant state school rather similar to the one at which we both teach. However, it is ranked number 1 or 2 in philosophy. Because he was at this program, his talent for academic philosophy was cultivated. At a different state school, or an Ivy, a talented philosopher might not have been exposed to some of the best minds in the field, and might have been pushed down a more applied path (say, law school).

4) The top 10% of my state school students would probably be in at least the top 20% of Ivy League students. The 50th percentile students are clearly worse than the 50th percentile of Ivy Leaguers, and my worst students are functionally illiterate, which is not the case at an Ivy League. Please note that this leaves room for the truth that many, many people at state universities are much brighter and more successful than many people who go to Ivies.

5) That said, what the Ivy League has is a culture of professionalism lacking in my students. Unlike my average and less-than-average students, Ivy Leaguers (even the average and less-than-average) do not audibly groan about the length of a required paper, do not openly do crossword puzzles in class, do not complain to professors about how booo-oo-ooring is the subject they are teaching. They show up to office hours, are more likely to show up regularly and punctually to class (not apparently hung over), they write grammatically correct emails to professors. I imagine this can rub off to some good effect on mediocre students.

6) Professor Deresiewicz says:
There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State...In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines.
Well, it's not as if I make such requirements (and I am strict) because I'm thinking about how best to prepare my students to be cogs in a mindless bureaucracy. I do it precisely because of the lack of culture of professionalism among the students -- one must impose it from without. Also, my class sizes are much bigger than in the Ivies. Missed due dates, etc., makes for an organizational nightmare. That said, my favorite story about this is the time I just stopped showing up to a class and failed to officially drop it (yes, young and stupid). At my current university, that would have gotten me an F and a serious blow to my GPA and chances for grad school. At my Ivy League, it went down in my transcript as an "unofficial withdrawal" and didn't affect my GPA.

7) I love teaching at a state school. In his article, prof D says
Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resum├ęs.
I think there's a lot of truth to that, and I've had some super-bright studnets that clearly just had something of a rocky start in life. Or who are super bright and curious but due to their socio-economic class were never exposed to the more driven and intellectual lives that Ivy League kids were. Even many of the average students, by going to college, are transcending the worlds in which they grew up - in a way that is not true for Ivy Leaguers. It's an honor and privilege and a joy to work with such students.


  1. For the record, I did neglect to formally withdraw from a class (which, irony of ironies, was a cake-walk music appreciation class that I enrolled in for an easy GPA pad) and did get an F on my transcript. By that time, I had already matched for residency, and it made no difference to anything whatsoever. But I find the idea of "unofficial withdrawal" hilarious.

    I have blogged about this before, by the way, but some of the medical students I worked with when I was a resident at a fairly prestigious program in New York City would have gotten failed had they pulled similar behavior on rotation at my (state) medical school.

  2. Elizabeth, I absolutely loved your last paragraph. Prior to my current gig, I taught at a State university, and I would agree with everything you wrote.