Doctor Cleveland's picture

    The Other Thing College Is For (and Why It Matters)

    If you ask anyone what colleges and universities are for, they'll give you more or less the same answer: to educate people.  That's a good answer. It's the one I give myself. But it's only half the truth. Colleges and universities actually fulfill two separate roles. We all know about both of them. We only talk about one of them. And because of that, we misunderstand almost everything about how higher education works and how it might be improved.

    Every individual college and university exists to educate: to teach people things they did not previously know. (People disagree over what the goal of education should be, but agree that education is the goal.) But colleges also confer social prestige on their graduates. Some confer a large amount, some a smaller amount, and some confer little or none. Taken together as a system, the American colleges and universities have both a teaching function and a sorting function.

    I dislike the sorting function and would rather it not exist. But saying that a deeply embedded social practice ought not to exist doesn't get rid of it. Too many people are committed to it, and too many people believe in that social practice as a simple reflection of reality. American higher education labels students by the "quality" (meaning the selectivity and prestige) of the school they attended. People by and large take those labels as real indicators of students' intelligence, likely prospects, and so forth. This social labeling is part of America's class system.

    We don't talk about this much, because most people don't like talking about the class system. It's difficult and embarrassing. (And before anyone finds this discussion of class upsetting or insulting, let me say two things. First, I'm not saying that some people should have more social prestige than others. I'm pointing out that in practice they do. I'm trying to describe how the system works, not endorsing it. Second, while talking to another person about their class position can be insulting and a way of putting them down, not talking about how the larger system works is a way of keeping the system in place and letting the people on top get away with things.) But even when we don't talk about class, and maybe especially when we don't talk about it, we experience it a real force in our society. We all know that Princeton alumni enjoy advantages that alumni of poor public colleges do not get. We feel it.

    Our public debates about higher education are confused because we don't talk openly or think clearly about the two different functions. It's easier to pretend that colleges are doing only a single thing. But that leads us into misunderstandings because we don't acknowledge how our things really operate or, worse still, talk about one function as if it were the other.

    Some people talk about the "great education" a school provides when they really mean the social cachet it provides. Some perceive socially-disadvantaged schools as genuinely providing less learning, no matter the quality of actual education there; those schools are simply "bad schools." These people conflate education and social prestige without being aware that they're doing it, and have trouble perceiving educational quality separately from educational privilege. Other people sometimes deny that anything happens at universities but social differentiation, and are prone to claiming that no actual education happens at elite schools, and so on. This is also a radical misunderstanding, and saying that nobody at Yale learns anything that people don't learn in night school is such an overstatement that it undermines the speaker's point. If two schools have different budgets and different missions, there will be real differences in educational outcomes. No one who's worked in higher education can honestly deny that.

    There are schools that are good at teaching students things. There are schools that are good at giving their students social credibility. There are schools that do both well, and schools that do neither. And some can only do one. There are schools that do an excellent job of educating their students but cannot give them any social prestige. There are also, I'm afraid, schools that provide mediocre or poor educations but do better at conferring social capital.

    Why does this matter? Because those two basic functions,educating and conferring prestige, have distinct and opposed economic logics.

    Education is an absolute and unlimited commodity. The more you produce, the better. Teaching people things is perhaps the ultimate non-zero-sum game.

    Social prestige is a relative and inherently limited commodity. The value of selectivity and exclusivity lies in the fact that most people are excluded. In a perfect world, every student could be superbly educated, but in no possible world could every student be more prestigious than every other student. "Exclusivity for all" is a nonsense slogan. Conferring prestige on students is very much a zero-sum game, where one student can only gain from what some other student, somewhere, loses.

    The prestige game matters because a school's prestige is its lifeline to more tangible resources, most importantly funding and potential students. A selective institution must maintain its perceived selectivity, its reputation for being hard to get into, for fear of losing access to the most desirable students. The difficulty of getting into a school is key to the social value of getting in to it, which is why exclusive universities trumpet their obscenely low admissions rate every year. Selectivity turns out to be self-fulfilling; if you lose your reputation for selectivity, the students you want most will stop applying.

    If your college or university dedicates itself strictly to education without any thought of conferring social prestige, both the school and its students will suffer for that choice. The students and the institution will be stigmatized by many people, and their actual educational achievements will often go unrecognized. Graduates will face disadvantages on the job market; the school will be starved of resources. This is the story of public higher education in America over the past thirty years.

    If your university protects its students' best interests, and its own, by working to build its own prestige (and thereby the prestige it confers on its alumni), it must enter a ceaseless zero-sum competition with its peers and rivals. This competition may strike some observers as dysfunctional, but it is an entirely rational and inevitable response to the underlying system of rewards. Since prestige is always relative, any institution must constantly be trying to keep up with its peers and stay ahead of the schools behind it. Every administration tries to move up in the pecking order, which is probably the only viable strategy for not falling further down in that order. You have to run just to stand still.

    Understanding the prestige competition between universities is crucial to understanding all the other intractable, poorly-explained questions in American higher education: how admissions work, why costs keep rising, why there seems to be such emphasis on research, what the current rage of enthusiasm for MOOCs is all about. Unless you separate out the questions of education and prestige, it's hard not to misunderstand these questions.

    Many people, for example, talk about the "high-quality courses" from Harvard and Stanford (which have taken the lead in MOOC production) being turned into MOOCs. But that is not an evaluation of educational quality; it is an evaluation of institutional prestige. If you don't make any distinction between teaching and creating prestige, then it seems self-evident that a class from Harvard is better than a class from Underfunded State. If you think of teaching and conferring prestige as separate things, then the MOOCs look like a pretty bad deal.

    One of the MOOCs that gets the most press is a version of one of Harvard's most famous gut classes, a class universally known among undergraduates by a derogatory nickname. (I can't remember ever hearing a Harvard student call that course by its actual name. For practical purposes "Heroes for Zeroes" is its name.) I won't call it a bad course. (I've never taken it.) But there are plenty of classics professors at much less glorious places capable of teaching equally useful courses on the same material and making those courses more challenging for the students. Questions of prestige aside, taking that particular course at Harvard is not a better deal than taking an equivalent course at any number of less-glorious schools.

    But the MOOC version of that notoriously-easy class is actually much easier than the Harvard class itself. At least students in the actual class write a few college papers, which get read and graded by teaching assistants who are studying for their own classics PhDs in the field (i.e. by smart people who can read classical Greek in the original). That's not possible for MOOCs, especially because of the Massive Open part. So someone taking the MOOC version just takes multiple-choice reading quizzes instead. And instead of a weekly face-to-face discussion session with one of those doctoral students (who actually knows what's going on in the material), there are lightly moderated online discussion boards. Now the educational product is very clearly inferior to taking a real class on the subject almost anywhere. Even a face-to-face version that's not quite as good as the face-to-face Harvard class is still much better than taking the Harvard MOOC. Talking about the MOOC as superior to a real course at Inglorious State is simply delusional. And replacing face-to-face classes at poor schools with MOOCs from rich, famous schools would be a rotten deal for students at the poor schools.

    Does this mean that Harvard doesn't do as good a job educating its students as less prestigious schools do? No. It spends more resources on education than poorer schools can dream of spending, and that matters. But it is not going to spend the kind of money it spends on its own handpicked students on every random stranger who signs up for a MOOC. It could not and would not. Harvard will always save its high-cost, high-value educational products for its own students.

    Cheerleaders for MOOCs talk about how they will make education more democratic, breaking down the exclusivity of the elite schools and making elite educations available for all. That has nothing to do with reality. The two most prominent MOOC providers, Harvard and Stanford, are currently wrestling for boasting rights over whose admissions rate is lower. (Stanford's rate finally fell below Harvard's by a tenth of one percent. They want everyone to know. Harvard wants everyone to forget.) Both universities are intent on turning away more applicants every year, and publicly boast about how many excellent students they have turned away. These are not schools committed to breaking down exclusivity. These are schools committed to being the most exclusive. Exclusivity is their business.

    If you take a MOOC produced at Harvard or Stanford, you don't get the full educational value that the real Harvard or Stanford version of the class provides. But you get absolutely none of the prestige that Harvard and Stanford gives its students. Part of the cachet of going to those schools is getting into a school that turns down more than 94% of its applicants. MOOCs take everyone who logs on. Harvard and Stanford have enormous social value because they are clubs almost no one can get into. MOOCs are clubs that will take anyone as a member.

    In fact, the point of a Harvard or Stanford MOOC is to remind you that you are NOT at Harvard and Stanford, that you are NOT one of the chosen few who gets to take the real class. They get to go to the selective school. You get to wish that you were one of them, with your nose pressed up against the monitor glass. The point is not for Harvard and Stanford to reduce the educational difference between the haves and the have-nots. The point is to increase the prestige difference between the haves and the have-nots. It isn't democratic. It isn't even very nice.


    Bravo for clearly separating the functions of branding and teaching but I don't think the following separation you make can be done so cleanly as this:

    Why does this matter? Because those two basic functions,educating and conferring prestige, have distinct and opposed economic logics.

    The system reproduces class prerogatives but also nourishes a meritocracy that assures that people are trained to do what is asked of them. In the matter of who gets a seat in the game of musical chairs, perhaps these "economic logics" are not polar opposites but fields of overlapping sets.

    La Rochefoucauld described education as a second self-love. This observation touches on how many different processes of selection could be perceived by anyone going through them as being a part of one thing. The motivation to be included in the exclusive overlapping set encourages this perception.

    Great article, Doc. You draw an interesting and important distinction. My quibble (notice how I always have a quibble?) concerns this notion of social prestige.

    I think you're conflating prestige and selectivity. Selectivity is a big part of prestige but hardly the only part. Faculty distinction is also critical, perhaps more so. And education, far from competing with prestige, is actually part of what makes institutions--and their graduates--prestigious. This is particularly true for elite liberal arts colleges that cannot compete with the top universities for distinguished faculty.

    This additional distinction can help to explain the growth of MOOCs  at the top schools. I disagree that Harvard and Standard are promoting their MOOCs to remind students that they're not at Harvard and Stanford. That just seems weird and a little silly. I think they're promoting them because it has become prestigious to offer popular MOOCs. Every time someone writes an article about a popular Harvard MOOC, Harvard's prestige goes up, and when Harvard's prestige goes up, so does the social prestige of its students--the select few who get to actually attend Heroes for Zeroes in the flesh.

    None of this should detract from your core point about how universities confer social status and the importance of selectivity to social prestige. I just think it's a little more complicated.

    PS As an aside, I think it's interesting how notions of education-related social prestige have changed. Harvard was not originally known for educating the smartest students but rather the "best" students, where "best" included pedigree, money, and character in addition to intelligence.

    Thanks, Mike. Let me quibble with all of your quibbles.

    First, I did not mean to reduce prestige to selectivity alone, except for brevity in a longish blog post. Faculty prestige is also a major component of university prestige, but I would add that faculty's prestige has little to do with their teaching and almost everything to do with their research. No one knows who the best physics teacher in America is. (And I mean that literally: no one knows.) Everyone knows who won last year's Nobel Prize for Physics.

    Second, by separating the two functions I did not mean to imply that they are completely unrelated. Their interrelation is complicated. But the simple statement that it is education that produces the prestige is a vast oversimplification (although one that would both comfort and benefit me personally). It is unfortunately the case that some schools DO manage to provide their students disproportionately more prestige (especially local prestige) than education.

    Third, yes, Harvard and Stanford's actual goal is to raise their brand. The effect it will have on students taking their MOOCs at San Jose State (for example) is merely incidental. But that effect is real, and obviously foreseeable. Nor should we discount the creation of desire, the carefully inculcated sense that you missed something if you never lived in Harvard Yard, as an intrinsic part of branding.

    Finally, I am well aware that exclusive universities changed their admissions policies in the 1960s, shifting their emphasis away from the established Eastern aristocracy of the previous 50-70 years to a more "meritocratic" system full of upwardly mobile strivers. But colleges did this to reflect, more than to create, the changing composition of the American ruling class. The upper classes have always been a shifting coalition, and the post-war period was America's last major reshuffling at the top.

    When I say "prestige," I'm not just talking about the highest level of academic prestige. And when I say "class privilege" I don't just mean the Astors and the Roosevelts. The meritocratic elite has outnumbered the old-money elite for the last fifty years; they are an intrinsic part of the class system I'm talking about.

    Doc, would you be so kind as to complete the last part of the third paragraph of your comment?  (...some schools DO manage to...?) It looks to have been cut off.  

    Thank you.

    Sorry about that.

    No worries.  Thanks.

    I quibble with your pretense of quibbling. You're not quibbling, you're clarifying. Moreover, your clarifications reveal that we're in agreement and frankly have nothing more to quibble about.

    PS To clarify, my previous PS was not a quibble but an observation that in no way contradicted anything you wrote. I just thought that it was interesting how notions of class privilege have changed and how academic admissions have reflected that change. Not very profound, I confess.

    Then I quibble with your lack of quibbling! Ha!

    I agree, the shift in the makeup of our country's elite is interesting, both because it shines a light on how our current ruling class operates and reproduces itself and because the shift happened within living memory, so that there are still elements within the national elite who regret the changes. (The shift in Yale's admissions came only a year or two after George W. Bush was admitted, and he is reportedly still alienated from Yale because of the changes it underwent in the 1960s.)

    That shift wasn't experienced as one massive event, but a huge number of smaller decisions, often with real risks attached. For the elite colleges, it was an active decision to reduce their bet on the old-line prep-school elite and bet more heavily on middle-class scholarship boys. Some of the administrators who made those bets were very worried about what would happen to the schools they ran if their gambles turned out badly.

    There's actually a story from the 1960s where a Yale admissions recruiter goes to the Bronx High School of Science for the first time, and basically gets told by a guidance counselor that Yale doesn't rate. (I think the guidance counselor literally asked "Where have you been?") Yale wasn't getting any of the Bronx's best until they showed some long-term commitment.

    I dislike the sorting function and would rather it not exist. But saying that a deeply embedded social practice ought not to exist doesn't get rid of it. Too many people are committed to it, and too many people believe in that social practice as a simple reflection of reality. American higher education labels students by the "quality" (meaning the selectivity and prestige) of the school they attended. People by and large take those labels as real indicators of students' intelligence, likely prospects, and so forth. This social labeling is part of America's class system.


    This is really dangerous thinking and is a little bit scary to hear on a "progressive" website.

    "A deeply embedded social practice" with "too many people are committed to it, and too many people believe in that social practice as a simple reflection of reality." That sounds alot like it could be applied to segregation or slavery, doesn't it?

    About two years after graduating college, I am very flumexed about life - I found myself pretty lost when I was put in situations in which a great degree of the educational structure wasn't there. The real world didn't really operate like I had been taught that it would. I have met people who have received Doctorate's from the country's best institutions and still become homeless.

    I'd like to go back, pursue a Master's maybe but it would honestly feel more fun to read all those books and answer questions again - I'm not sure that it will better me as an individual.

    I am friends with a Berkeley professor and when I posted my above thought in different words on Facebook, he said "How do you think that makes me feel?" The books that you pay to read in college are available at libraries and prisons for free, teachers and professors are often lacking passion and sometimes are downright rude to students and the entire thing seems more geared towards employing people within the educational complex itself as opposed to preparing them for the larger world, which is too chaotic and strange to really teach anyone about.

     The educational system has more faith in itself than it deserves - it probably shouldn't be done away with but it does seem deeply flawed.

    Did saying that segregation or slavery should not exist make them go away? I think it took some fairly dramatic changes. In the same way, simply saying that people ought not to think of Stanford students as "better" than UC Santa Cruz students and Santa Cruz students as "better" than Cal State Sanislaus students, won't do a damn thing, because people will still insist on thinking that.

    There are all kinds of deeply embedded social practices: the class system, the social rituals surrounding particular holidays, patterns of family organization, the rules of grammar. Because these are not practices dictated by any central authority, but are instead kept alive by a vast network of independent but mutually-reinforcing agents, these practices can only be changed by traumatic social disruption, and even that is sometimes futile. They certainly can't be changed by legislation.

    "We should not judge how smart/qualified/etc. people are by where they went to school," is a statement like, "People should not make such a big deal out of football," or "Real Christians should not talk about the Easter Bunny," or "No one should end a sentence with a preposition." They are absolutely useless things to say.


    I can't think of an example of a country that hasn't sorted people with its higher level schooling in a way that puts them in a certain class.

    In the past, lots of Europen countries with more socialistic systems were sorting people by test at a relatively early age which would basically brand them as working class or not for the rest of their lives (while in the 60's, seems like we were teaching every single kid alike as if he/she was Harvard bound for an English degree, owing to the influence of the GI Bill, I guess.)  In communist countries, there were the elite schools and trajectories for loyal party members. Granted, in most of the third world, the separation was and is very simple, whether you get any or not, and if you do, whether you can connect with the clique currently in power or not afterwards.

    Is prestige everything to everybody?  Maybe to those who strive to make names for themselves or to grab high level jobs, but most college students understand that not everybody can get into Harvard or Yale or even most of the Ivy Leagues.  Not every college student even wants to reach that high.  But it is true that "Harvard" (let's say) means much more than "Podunk".  "Harvard" is a shortcut for "Wow!" to most of us.  "She went to Harvard!" just cries for an exclamation point to a lot of people.

    Beyond the actual education, I think (looking from the outside in) the greatest advantage to university life is the people you meet there.  If you are able to get into a prestigious college you're bound to meet people who have had advantages, who have connections, and your friendship or even acquaintance with some of them may lead to the kind of networking necessary to step above other people to the job you might otherwise never have had a chance at.  

    That may be where the sorting function comes in.   I think that's a great term, by the way. I've known many people who have had the advantages of Ivy League educations and most of them cherish the experience more than they do the education.  They will forever be a part of an amazing community and they may, in fact, have become super-strivers, not because of what they learned in the classroom but because they saw super-strivers in action and recognized their competition. 

    They also may well have recognized that being a part of that community means certain responsibilities to maintain the prestige of the community so that they will always be considered a part of a prestigious community.  (My son graduated from Berkeley but now lives near and works in Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan.  Nobody there thinks his school is a big deal.  But if he had been a U-M grad--now that's the ticket. . .)

    But I'm just guessing, of course, since I've only observed it and not lived it. There is a class system here in democratic America and there always has been.  It's not confined to prestigious schools.  It's everywhere.  It's what keeps the American dream going, I'm afraid.

    (Doc, you've thrown out the acronym, MOOC, without explaining what that means.  What does it mean?  Am I going to feel really stupid when I find out?)





    MOOC Massive Online Open Courses, it's all the rage for colleges.

    Ah. . . Thanks, TMac.  I'll go back and read Doc's piece again with that in mind.

    Sorry not to have explained the acroynym, Ramona.

    As for prestige: I used the example of a few top schools as shorthand, but I don't mean to imply that only the top handful of schools are the prestigious ones. The sorting-and-labeling system goes all the way through the class system, and people's perceptions of which local colleges are "good" or "bad" are expressions of it. This is not a system where a dozen schools at the top are part of the prestige system and everybody else is "normal." Or to put it another way: the elite aren't the only people participating in the class system.

    In fact, I think the distinctions I'm talking about can be most visible at the middling levels, especially when you move to a new area and first hear about the schools that have only local prestige. Those are maybe the easiest cases to understand precisely because you can come to them as an outsider who has never heard of the schools in question and hasn't internalized the local prestige distinctions as something "real."

    There is another aspect some prestigious colleges online programs: sponsors - with their money and their goals in mind. I snipped the following from a fairly conservative website:

    "So, Georgia Tech — a state university operating under real budget constraints over recent years — will use $2 million of AT&T’s money to develop an online degree program for the profit of a private, out-of-state company. A course which we all expect will be used primarily by foreign workers in countries to which we routinely outsource software jobs, so they can earn degrees with Georgia Tech’s prestigious name on them at half the cost a regular grad student here might pay."
    The snark is only a small part of a very informative article and worth the read.

    Forgive me if you've already seen these...your post seems to be in useful dialog with a few others I've read recently--perhaps more peripherally than directly.

    Here's one, via interview, by Sarah Kendzior, on internships, with a bit near the end about the prestige economy. Another, on grading/assessment as well as academia's broadening function to "certify" a wider range of practices than was traditional.

    I'd add a substantive comment, sad. hurty.




    Two books that come to mind that bear on themes in this thread are:

    Christopher Hayes' Twilight of the Elites, on the subject of meritocracy and oligarchy, which has gotten a fair amount of buzz in the year or so since it's come out, for a book of its type.  The first few amazon reader reviews give a sense of what his argument is.  I found the book, which is not long, well-written and interesting.      

    Robert Frank's early (1996), The Winner Take All Economy: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us, looking at what the subtitle suggests it will look at 

    Sometimes it is easy to slip into thinking a particular type of prestige is universal rather than particular.  The advantages conferred to someone from this or that university are not available in all settings with all social and economic subgroups.  In fact, saying you're from Harvard or whatever may actually be a strike against you.  People want a degree from Harvard because the particular people and institutions that want to impress are impressed by such a degree.  They sometimes forget that not everybody embraces the Fortune 500/law firm approach to what confers prestige and what doesn't.


    "They sometimes forget that not everybody embraces the Fortune 500/law firm approach to what confers prestige and what doesn't."

    Though sadly most human resource departments do.

    I thought of these two comments reading this 2006 forum entry purported by Buzz Feed to be by Edward Snowden. Forget whether it's by Snowden or not, I think it makes the point:

    .....You’re going into IT. Nobody gives a shit what school you go to. Choose the cheaper school.

    Listen to what they say about networking. This is absolutely vital. If somebody likes you, it doesn’t even matter if you put your pants on before your underwear in the morning — you will get the job.

    What you will need is IT work experience. You must get a job in IT while you’re going to school. The sad reality is that an IT degree means DICK in terms of competency to an employer. You need demonstrated, specialized skills to be competitive. SO, you need work experience.

    Get a part-time IT gig anywhere you can. Even if you don’t want to work through college, that’s fine. Get it. Here’s the dirty little secret: you can scale back your hours until you’re only working four hours a week if you need more school time. Take leaves of absence, but remain employed. It doesn’t matter how many hours you work, because the only thing going on your resume is the number of YEARS you worked there. What DOES matter is that you are the absolute best of friends with your supervisor and when your new post-college employer calls them for a reference, they absolutely BLEED love for you.

    As long as you’re good at what you do, you’ll never have a problem, and that work experience will make that degree worth far more than it is on its own.

    People might argue, but they’d be wasting their breath. I speak from personal experience in the most disadvantaged position in the job market. I don’t have a degree of ANY type. In fact, I don’t even have a high school diploma.

    That said, I have $0 in debt from student loans, I make $70k, I just had to turn down offers for $83k and $180k (they’re going in a different directions than where I’m heading), and my co-workers have BSs, MSs, and ten to fifteen years of experience. Employers fight over me.

    And I’m 22.

    That’s networking. Good luck...

    Sure, if you're applying for an entry level job with whoever is hiring with a Bachelor's Degree, the Human Resources will pay more attention to one from Harvard or Yale.

    But if you have set your mind on doing something specialized, I'm with Trope. And it's because of teh networking, as teh geek purported to be Snowden says. If you want to be in commercial real estate development, your best bet is to network with a bunch of people and professors in one of the best known damn programs for an MBA in that in the country, at UW. Far better than Harvard or Yale. If you want to get into American art dealing, Harvard or Yale gets you: basically zilch. Unless going to Harvard and Yale means you have some family connections to some really rich collectors ready to sell.  Otherwise, that art dealer internship that Professor Bill Gerdts can get you into when you're enrolled at CCNY's graduate program in art history is what is going to do the trick. (I believe it has worked every single time.) If you're a young Matthew Yglesias and you blog and write very well, your financially successful parents' support allows you to blog without pay until someone's willing to pay you to blog, and the Ivy and other upper class diplomas are actually a thorn in your side that other people are always rubbing in your nose. Etc.

    I don't know where you go to network if you want to go into agriculture or oceanography, but I am pretty sure it's not Harvard or Yale. What is prestige for good jobs, headhunter's jobs,  anything other than "just a job" is having studied where there is the most famous program in the subject area. Hence, the big money being spent on certain professors and certain departments allover the country.

    Also, the job thing is different from the status thing. I think Demosthenes' comment downthread is quite accurate in this in elaborating that this has become very regionalized.  People in different areas of the country make very different judgments about your social status and even what sub-culture you are pegged with by where you went to college. But I don't think most human resources cares about this regional social status thing unless you are in sales or marketing of luxury goods.

    Now that is a really radical interpretation of my comment which in no way contradicts what you wrote. I was just casting an aspersion on what the human resources profession has become - a bunch of risk averse, politically-correct bureaucrats who overcomplicate the job market.

    I am very well aware of the value of connections in finding work. The first stockbroker I ever worked for hired me as his sales assistant because I had a college degree (he thought it added to his status since the other sales assistants at the firm didn't) then on my first day told me his secret to success and I quote: "it's not what you know; it's who you know". In a way, I proved him wrong but also right. He got me in the door where I met people along the way who helped me move up.


    I should add that after 27 years working for brokerages, I cannot recall a single stockbroker was not hired for their connections -- iow, for how much business s/he could bring with them.


    I think Snowden (assuming he wrote that) is better explained as an exception. I work in a highly specialized field, but I wouldn't have been able to do so if I didn't know the right people, and knowing these people is a direct result of me having graduated from one of the "right" universities. (Not an Ivy, but consistently one of the top 5 public universities.)

    That said, it might also be true that you can still get a good job fairly easily (earning ~$100k) if you have the "right" knowledge, although I'm not sure how you convince someone else of that if you don't have either good connections or good experience, which gets back to a boot-strapping problem.

    Actually, Snowden probably isn't an exception. IIRC, someone already wrote about his father providing a foot in the door.

    The accountant in me would really like to see a separation of roles between educating and credentialing. Universities could still award certifications for course completion aka degrees or diplomas but then have another organization test or measure the knowledge and skills acquired against independent standards generally accepted as necessary to actually use them.



    This does happen in certain high-stakes professions, at least. Law schools can't license you to practice law; you get your degree and then take the state bar exam. Medical schools can't give you a medical license. And your accounting degree couldn't make you a CPA. You had to pass the exam.

    But that still doesn't separate out credentialing entirely. Someone who went to a fancier law school is likely to have more opportunities than someone who went to law school nights. The fancier degree confers advantages.

    This article and the comments are spot on!  I live in an affluent Chicago suburb. Graduates of the local (and excellent) public high school vie with one another to get into the most prestigious schools.  The parents understand that going to a college with the "right kind of people" matter almost as much as the actual education.  What your article ignores (but some of the comments allude to) is the fact the "right kind of people" go to all sorts of schools, not just the top 3 Ivies.  For kids who are not brilliant, folks in this area understand what are the "right" schools.  Thus, for example, Colgate, Grinnell, Tulane, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Skidmore are the "right" kind of schools, even though they are far easier to get into than the top Ivies.  Kids from this area flock to schools like this.  It's no coincidence. It's totally a class thing.

    Thank you, Demosthenes.

    Yes, it's an important point that the "right" schools are not just the top handful. I used the super-elite schools as shorthand for this post, partly because everyone understands how prestigious they are and partly because I was pivoting to the MOOC argument, where some of the top ten schools have been prime movers.

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