Why an Ivy League degree isn't necessarily better than any other college degree


The Harvard affirmative action case, in which a group of Asian students has taken the university to court claiming that its admissions practices discriminates against them, is making me nuts.  

As far as I can tell, the Asian students — a grab-bag that includes people who claim ancestry from dozens of ethnic, religious, linguistic and national groups — aren’t wrong on the numbers.

But numbers don’t add up to either truth or justice.

For that, you need to look more deeply. For one thing, if you’re a brilliant student of any stripe, chances are pretty good that you’ll do just fine in the college sweepstakes even if you don’t get the thumbs-up from Harvard. A college degree is the surest way to economic strength and stability, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Who gets into Harvard and other Ivy League schools?

The system is rigged to begin with. It’s not against Asians nor in favor of African-Americans or other minorities, but in two distinct and obvious directions.

The first is in favor of “legacies”— children of alums — whose admissions packets are basically put at the top of the heap from the get-go. Most of these kids are white, according to the New York Times.

The second way the system is rigged is even more troubling, though, because it points to deeper economic disparity at the heart of our society. All but a tiny fraction of students at our nation’s most elite colleges come from families who can afford the best for them to begin with. Be that in the form of homes in good public school districts, SAT tutoring, private schools, learn-Italian-abroad programs, music camp, or some combination of the above. Meritocracy, not so much.

Follow the money

Harvard has an endowment of more than $37 billion, according to U.S. News & World Report. Yale, more than $29 billion. So it goes through the top-tier.

Further down the line you have Rutgers University with $820.2 million, according to Endowments.com. University of Arizona has just over $664 million and the University of New Hampshire has $161.9. 

That leaves me with two questions:

  1. What is the single most important factor predicting basic economic well-being?
  2. What does a degree from Harvard or another Ivy League actually mean?

If your answer to the first question is “A bachelor’s degree,” then you get an A. If you know, too, that it includes a bachelor degree from any of the institutions of higher learning certified by the Association of American Colleges & Universities then you get an A-plus. 

If your answer to the second question is “I don’t know,” you’re not alone. That’s because what constitutes a great educational environment for one kid may signal misery for the other, not to mention that competitive private schools graduate plenty of non-entities (including “excellent sheep,”) while non-competitive and state schools graduate plenty of super-stars. Endless examples on both fronts.  

Ivy League is a private club as much as an education

But as those in the know know, an Ivy or Ivy-like degree is not necessarily about the education at all. To put it another way, the scramble at the very top of the educational system is about being a member of a closely guarded, very private club.

People at the top of the heap want to stay there — always have, always will. Huddled masses yearning to be educated? No thanks.

That’s what the Harvard court case is really about: a proxy for what we should be talking about, economic opportunity and, yes, social justice. 

When the top sliver of children from financially gifted households continue to get the lion’s share of the goodies, leaving the rest to scramble to educate themselves at increasingly money-strapped and underfunded public schools, we’ve got a problem. When we, and our kids, cling to the idea that the top-tier, most prestigious place is the only way to go, we’ve lost sight not only of our values as a society, but of the true value of education in preparing young people to be responsible, fully-on-line adult members of society.

At the end of the day, do we really want to teach our kids that they are little more than their test scores?

Jennifer Moses’ most recent novel is called “The Book of Joshua,” available now. 

READ MORE:

  • I got a dog and unexpectedly became a better parent to my three daughters
  • Now a lawyer, single mom Harvard grad Briana Williams’ next hurdle is mom guilt
  • What to do when your kid loves learning but hates school

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