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Are Elite Colleges Really That Bad?

Issues of happiness and conformity notwithstanding, one might still wonder about the affirmative case for elite colleges, especially when considering the effort it takes to gain admittance to one.

· 10 min read
Are Elite Colleges Really That Bad?

The last year has been a difficult time for the US’s top universities. In March, a number of top schools including Stanford, Yale, and Georgetown were implicated in the now-infamous college admissions scandal. Over the summer, the discrimination case against Harvard by a group of Asian American students exposed important parts of the university’s internal admissions policy to criticism. And all of this comes after five turbulent years of campus debates about a range of topics from trigger warnings to academic freedom.

Erich J Prince’s thoughtful Quillette essay, “Elite Colleges Reconsidered,” makes the question underlying many of these discussions explicit: To what degree is attending an elite university in the US still a worthwhile goal for a young student?

Plenty of factors suggest it may not be—stifling political climates, pressures of conformity, claims of poor mental health on campus, and seemingly corrupt admissions processes. There are also plenty of bad reasons to believe that going to an elite school is a worthwhile goal, from prestige-seeking to thoughtless acceptance of the adulation their reputations invite. I had no intention of attending an elite institution but then later transferred to one. This has provided me with an unusual perspective on this debate, and I submit that good reasons remain for a certain type of student to strive to win a place at an elite university. Amid a backlash caused by elite universities’ failings, we risk forgetting the legitimate reasons for pursuing such a place, and this over-correction is causing the value of these institutions to be underestimated.

Should the admissions scandal and other shortcomings combine to make attendance at elite institutions undesirable, as Prince seems to suggest? Although Prince writes that these “shortcomings receive comparatively little attention,” I believe they have received enough attention to discourage some students who might flourish on these campuses from applying. I want to make the case for elite schools beyond their “elite-ness,” and to address the two central criticisms Prince makes in his piece—that elite universities are distinctly unhappy and that they enforce a homogeneous conception of what constitutes a productive life.

Happiness is certainly a reasonable area of concern. Students should not want to go to a school that will make them miserable. However, there does not seem to be good evidence to suggest that elite schools are unusually unhappy places. Prince identifies the suicide rates at MIT and Harvard as higher than the national average. Although this is certainly a subject that merits attention, there is a risk of selection bias. Evidence from psychology research suggests that highly intelligent people may be more prone to a wide range of psychological disorders. This implies that these issues would persist irrespective of a particular campus culture. Of course, elite universities should be doing their utmost to provide resources to troubled students, but a higher suicide rate alone cannot indict a campus culture as the cause.

To the extent that students enrolled in elite schools aren’t happy, this may also be symptomatic of a larger mental health problem affecting our generation. There seems to have been a substantial uptick in the number of mental health-related problems between the mid 2000s and 2017, from a 52 percent rise in major depressive episodes to a 71 percent increase in serious psychological distress. These trends seem to be largely confined to “Generation Z” (roughly, the cohort born between 1997 and 2012). A number of explanations have been proposed, the most prominent of which is increased use of internet communication technologies and social media. These trends too are very troubling, but they do not suggest anything particularly problematic about elite campuses.

Despite all of the discussion about unhappiness on elite campuses, I have difficulty connecting the discussion to my own experience. People do not seem to be unusually unhappy; they seem to face many of the same ups and downs that most people face with much the same degree of resilience. Brown, where I am now enrolled, has long been called the “happiest Ivy.” I don’t wish to sound dismissive—there is certainly anxiety and depression on campus, but perhaps not more so than in most other samples of 8,000 people. An internal poll on the subject was recently conducted by our campus paper, in which almost 90 percent of students described themselves as “somewhat happy” or “very happy.” Even when we bear the limitations of polling in mind—particularly when polling something as difficult to quantify as happiness—the study seems to offer a sharp contrast to the pessimistic picture painted by critics.

It is not possible to discern, from the internal poll alone, the causes of student happiness. But, we might expect they result at least in part from Brown’s unique features as a school, foremost among which is the open curriculum. Implemented based on a study by a group of students in the late 1960s, the open curriculum eliminated all core curriculum and distribution requirements, which affords students at Brown “unparalleled freedom to shape their own education and to make their college curricula a more thorough reflection of their own interests and aspirations.” Indeed, in his essay, Prince seems to identify burdensome distribution requirements as a major source of unhappiness. This makes intuitive sense, as the frustration caused by being stuck in classes in which a student has no interest seems like an obvious source of unhappiness. By allowing students to craft their own curriculum, the open curriculum allows students to pursue coursework they find interesting and worthwhile.

The open curriculum is certainly open to abuse by those looking to avoid rigor in their coursework. But it also allows the good student to be good, to craft a curriculum more compelling and well-tailored to them than a mandatory core could ever be. As a junior, I rediscovered a passion for film theory, so I was able to incorporate the subject into my coursework, unburdened by frustrating requirements that might otherwise fill those slots. I have no doubt that I am happier watching Tarkovsky films than sitting through whatever science requirement would otherwise be filling that slot.

Arguments like these are therefore less an indictment of elite schools per se than of their onerous graduation requirements. Despite the open curriculum, Brown is not free of “pressure cooker” environments within certain majors. Computer Science seems to be a hotbed of these issues, as it is in most schools. Yet, once again, this seems to be due to wider pedagogical trends within the discipline. There are steps schools can take to solve these issues, like encouraging professors to be open to extensions and hiring more teaching assistants.

Finally, it is worth considering that happiness is not be the summum bonum of college. It may not make one “happy” to be stuck in the library working on logical proofs late into the night (although sometimes it might), but doing such things serves to enrich the intellect and provide a more profound and long-lasting sense of fulfillment. Obviously, no college should be needlessly exacerbating the mental health issues of its students. Nevertheless, the college experience is really about gleaning a better understanding of our place in the world, not necessarily having the “best four years” of our lives.

Prince’s second point is more compelling—that elite colleges produce a certain social conformity, most obviously manifest in hordes of students entering finance and consulting after graduation. However, we need not read these choices as a product of social conformity, much less what Prince calls “groupthink.” A simpler explanation is opportunity cost. If students can earn over $100,000 each the year after they graduate by working in consulting, investment banking, or at a top tech firm, that provides its own incentive and temptation. This is a choice faced by high performing students all over the country, not just those at elite schools. The tendency of students to enter such lucrative professions is often discussed as if they were being brainwashed, but accepting a six-digit salary to live and work in San Francisco or New York along with many of one’s friends is a completely understandable decision, regardless of any alleged pressures to conform. It is unclear what culpability lies with elite institutions in encouraging this dynamic.

Nevertheless, an environment in which students feel paralyzed by their opportunity costs is hardly ideal. If one thinks that culture and social conformity are powerful forces in shaping students’ career trajectories, the relevant questions should include: How do we harness the cultural forces in elite schools to more fruitful ends? How do we revive a belief in civil responsibility and public service at elite universities? By raising the status of these pursuits, we may make it easier for students to overcome the opportunity cost of a high paying job.

Issues of happiness and conformity notwithstanding, one might still wonder about the affirmative case for elite colleges, especially when considering the effort it takes to gain admittance to one. My college process was a strange one. I had strong interests in high school, mostly involving the intersection of politics, philosophy, and economics, but I lacked the maturity and discipline to perform well, especially in disciplines that didn’t interest me.

Are Elite Colleges Really That Bad?
Sydney. London. Toronto.

I also doubted it was worth my while to devote my entire time in high school to the pursuit of a place at an elite school. I saw my peers in classes ahead of me pour their lives into a seemingly superficial goal, that only sometimes yielded the desired results. When I write that some of the virtues of elite colleges have become underrated, I am not describing a paranoid possibility but a view I once held. After I received a “B”-filled report card, I recall telling my mother that an elite school education was not worth the sacrifice of so much of my high school life. Wouldn’t there still be plenty of college options I would be happy with?

In a series of events I cannot divulge without recourse to cliché, I took a gap year between high school and college during which I worked, traveled, and read extensively in literature and philosophy. My learning was autodidactic, leading me to crave opportunities to find people with whom I could discuss ideas. I looked forward to college, where I supposed I would be able to discuss these ideas over late-night conversations with my new friends. But when I arrived at the Southern Methodist University where I had enrolled, I found few students who shared my interests. Most seemed intent on admission to the business school. At a time when many students are saddled with student debt and virtually all are nervous about their job prospects, such decisions are understandable. But these dynamics created the feeling of a modern trade school, not the sort of endless intellectual stimulation I expected college to provide. With a renewed sense of what I wanted and what it would take to get there, I studied intensely with the goal of transferring.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was admitted to Brown. Perhaps the most of exciting part about being here is something absent from Prince’s piece: That virtually every student I meet has academic and intellectual interests they are truly excited about, whether it be Russian Orthodox theology or Amazonian language systems or how humans might produce food after a nuclear winter. I expect that the ability to cultivate this atmosphere today extends beyond the Ivy League (plus Stanford, Duke, Chicago, and MIT) to include at least a cluster of the top liberal arts colleges. Yet close friends at other very good schools, like UC Berkeley and Vanderbilt, have told me they have struggled to find a vibrant intellectual environment. I don’t mean to over-extrapolate from anecdotes, but I do have the sense that in a world in which the humanities are losing their prominence and students are more often looking for practical and career-oriented fields of study, campuses full of students looking to examine ideas for their own sake are becoming more difficult to come by.

Despite their flaws, elite universities are able to cultivate these vibrant intellectual atmospheres and often provide unparalleled resources with which students can pursue these interests—top professors, campus journals, research opportunities and funding, or any number of other extracurricular offerings. As to the question of whether or not admission to an elite school is a worthwhile goal, one must ask what the next best alternative would be. It is hard to imagine that many other schools can offer the same culture and range of resources. For the student seeking an environment rich in intellectual inquiry, elite schools seem to remain the best option.

Although I have argued that there are good reasons to seek admission to an elite school, I don’t mean to exonerate them entirely. Clearly, elite schools are suffering a crisis of public confidence and need to reestablish that they are places where hardworking and intellectually passionate people can exchange ideas. The college admission scandal did this mission a great disservice. So did the troubling questions raised by the case brought against Harvard by Asian American students, even though they did not ultimately prevail. Questionable admissions policies need to be seriously reconsidered if top colleges are to reassert themselves as intellectually fruitful environments.

Conservative students have certainly lost faith in universities to serve their purpose as spaces for intellectual inquiry, likely because of their sometimes-justified impression that universities are more interested in appeasing campus agitators than providing a space for the exchange of ideas. Yet colleges seem to be far past the recent peak campus activism in 2015 and toxic politics, while they exist, seem largely avoidable. Moreover, to the extent that political discourse is stifling, student’s intellectual energy often seems, at least in my experience, to be redirected into other pursuits like studying art, literature, and music. This may not be ideal, but it at least preserves much of that same intellectual atmosphere in a different form. Nevertheless, universities certainly must continue to renew their commitment to open discourse, as some like University of Chicago have.

Where elite universities have erred, it is largely in the specific administrative choices they have made. These administrative choices are malleable: Schools can allow their students more flexibility in their curriculum; they can encourage cultures of altruism and public service; they can help to cultivate intellectual climates. When students attend elite schools, not only do they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in an intellectual culture, they also have the opportunity to take part on that ongoing project of improvement. Some may regret that these schools play an outsized role in American culture, but so long as they do it is our job to help make that role an ever more positive one.

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