Skip to comments.(Vanity) Of Academics, Sports, and Success: Social Tidal Forces
Posted on 04/03/2012 6:33:59 AM PDT by grey_whiskers
Over the past couple of years, I have been corresponding with and visiting various Colleges and Universities, as part of helping younger folks decide where to attend school. In addition, I have visited a number of College Websites, and discussion groups (e.g. College Prowler and College Confidential) in order to round out my sources of information by relying on the experience of other people for places I didn't have the opportunity to see for myself. This has led to a number of observations about "the way the world works" and how these factors influence people's actions and their path through life. Two of the chief bones of contention seem to be "college is not worth it, you'll do far better saving your money and starting a business" and "Ivy League or Bust: all other money is wasted." I wish to touch on the first briefly, and then treat of the second in more detail.
As far as "college or no college" -- the old saw, quoted in website after website, seems to be that "the average premium in lifetime earnings for someone with a college degree, over someone with a high school degree, is approximately a million dollars. Since even the elite schools cost far, far, less than this, it is not even a close decision. College is the way to go." Here, I beg to differ, for two reasons. First, the extreme rise in college costs, and second, the notion of the time value of money. It used to be (insert obligatory "back when I was your age, sonny") that college was affordable enough, that students could work full-time over the summer, and part-time during the school year, and pretty much self-fund their undergraduate education. I had scholarships to undergraduate school which pretty much covered my costs (I was left with $100 / semester tuition and books; my parents kicked in for that, saying that my scholarship was my contribution. I didn't argue, not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth.) But nowadays? Unless one is a resident of a state, and goes to a state college -- or one has reciprocity, costs ramp up fairly quickly. One private (not particularly household name, nor exclusive) college in Minneapolis where I live charges $30,000 / year for undergraduates; another one which admits ~70% of its applicants, charges closer to $40,000 / year. What could one do if one took the $120,000 as small business loans and began earning money? Student loan debt is deferred (sometimes nearly indefinitely), but it is not eliminated in bankruptcy. And with the Obaama economy, a "good job" is not a birthright directly out of college: certainly not in the fluff fields so popular among many students. And so the wonder of compound interest may work as a double whammy, to students in "average majors" at "average colleges".
Let us turn, then, to the second proposition. What of the elite colleges (Ivy League, Berkeley, Cal Tech, Stanford, Northwestern, University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke, MIT, Johns Hopkins, and a few others)? Here, it is more of a mixed bag. Certainly, attendees of these colleges have two advantages: name recognition, and (so to speak) self-accreditation: if one proclaims one of these schools as their pedigree, the listener is made socially aware that to challenge the speaker is to challenge the reputation of the school, and thus to brand oneself as an idiot. Look how many times people point out that Obama went to Columbia and Harvard, while Sarah Palin went to...where was that again?
The interesting thing about this, is that attendace at these schools, and dreams of success, become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once it is known that you went to the "right" school, doors open up for you -- not just the obvious one of the alumni network at that school, but members of other elite schools will give you openings, opportunities, help, that might not have appeared otherwise. The further "ahead" you get, the more the Red Sea (or "Red Tape" Sea) parts for you. Which leads to an interesting phenomenon: people from elite schools assume that they are, well, better than everyone else; not realizing how much of their success is due to their connections or the name attached to their school.
But there is another step, beyond that: one forgets how capricious the admissions to the elite schools are. Surely "only the best of the best" go to Harvard, right? Well, not always. Run the numbers on how many students are admitted to the schools above; the size of the freshman class is larger than the number of geniuses; not only do many top students apply to several of these schools, but only get admitted to ONE of them; there are a fair number of geniuses who (for whatever quirk) don't make the grade and "have to settle" for another school, or who by their own choice eschew the competition and go to a different school. (From my own neck of the woods, there was an article in the Star & Tribune about a 13-year-old attending U of Minnesota fulltime; I also recall a similar story about a musical / mathematical prodigy who enrolled at Indiana University at age 13.) How much of the success of the "elite classes" is due to "luck of the draw" in being admitted to the right school, and then propelled higher?
In case anyone thinks this is "sour grapes" on my part, they are wrong; these thoughts were prompted by reading up on colleges, and articles written by members of the elite pondering on the vicissitudes of life; and by comparisons to the world of sports. Sports? Yes, sports. I remember when I was *much* younger, reading an article about baseball phenom Cory Snyder (courted by the Indians). Among his accomplishments were (IIRC) a .300 average in the minors, a rifle arms in the outfield, and the ability to go from first third on the next batter's lazy single. But what happened to him? He never panned out. Or the NFL is full of examples of Heisman trophy winners who never fulfilled their promised potential. The difference between academia and sports is instructive: both are fiercely competitive, but (in some measure) sports is more objective: you either strike out, or hit the ball for extra bases. You make the basket, or you don't. You clear the goal line for the winning score, or you don't. Whereas, in the life of the mind, what constitutes a "brilliant paper" is *much* more subjective. And so, some of the people at the top, counter-intuitively, have *much* more of their ego invested in having made it "to the top" than those who didn't: because, if they admit that some part of their success is due to chance, rather than their own pure awesomeness, what do they have left to stroke their ego? Two examples will serve, and then it's time to wrap this up.
While reading on one of the college sites, I came across an article written by a Harvard PhD (in English Literature, or Comparative Writing, or some such field). The newly-minted PhD was lamenting the fact that, despite their Harvard PhD (and apparently, some prestigious award in the field), the only faculty appointment they could find, was not at "a real school" like a U of Chicago or another Ivy League school (where they belonged by right, apparently), but at some fungal redneck school like Georgia Tech or U of Alabama or somesuch. (This also brings to mind the shooting by the Harvard biochemist at Alabama when denied tenure.) The interesting thing is this: yes, the Ivy League and other elite institutions as a whole attract people far smarter than most other schools. But the overlap with other places is NOT zero; and as the graduate programs have grown, more PhDs have been produced, than the available professorial slots available for them at elite schools: and so, some even of the best, have been forced to take a step down and mix...with the commoners!
Oh, the shame.
Two footnotes: a good article on the self-congratulation of the elites is here; and, if one wants to take a look at people at the very top teaching at non-elite schools, consider that Nobel Chemist Linus Pauling ended up at Oregon State, and P.A.M. Dirac (Nobel Physicist, father of quantum mechanics' Dirac Delta Function, the bra-ket notation, and relativisitic quantum mechanics) ended up at Florida State.
Central Piedmont Community College can’t be beat!
This is the only line I can quibble with. I agree there is a significant percentage who don't realize it's the brand/connections that open doors, however, a good portion know about this. I have a friend who wanted to get into publishing. She "needed an ivy" on her resume in order to be considered. Interestingly, she found out that she only needed to have attended there, not graduate so she transferred to an less expensive school with what she felt was a better program after two years. I know some one else who said that the money spent on the ivy league MBA wasn't for the classroom instruction, but for the connections with classmates and alumni. These people probably aren't going to admit this publicly, but there are people who know that the classroom instruction is maybe 50% of the equation. P.S. I would love to talk to you privately about your research/work.
CPCC in Charlotte, NC? My gf went there for 2 years before transferring to UNCC.
Small World haha
My son’s going there now. The state’s community colleges have a great new program for high school students, tuition-free classes, guaranteed to transfer to any state university.
Yeah, I wish I had known about that before I headed off to NC State. They really screw you with the General Ed classes the first 2 years so it’s good to make a dent before you get there.
Btw, I don’t know if your son is considering NC State but if he is I’d be happy to talk to him about which majors are actually worth something and which are wasting his time.
Bill’s interested in business, with an emphasis on music production, marketing, band management, that sort of thing. He wishes he might be a professional guitarist, but has the sense to know the business side is more likely to provide steady work.
He’s looking at Appalachian State and UNC-Wilmington, probably fall of 2013 admission as a sophomore. No reason had can’t do over 30 hours at CPCC.
Thank you so much for your insights, dear grey_whiskers!
Thanks for the link to the essay by Mr. Deresiewicz. I confess to not being able to sustain my interest to the end. I'm a bit amazed that the fellow is able to scratch out a living as a writer.
Anti-elitism is a leftist, populist impulse fueled by envy and jealousy.
Did you read the article from the Yale graduate about life in the Ivy League vs. life among the commoners?
(Recall that Barack Hussein Obaama, mmm, mmm, mmm is a graduate of Columbia and Harvard; that John Kerry is a Yale grad; but that Reagan is an alum of Eureka College.)
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