Ivy League under fire

Ivy League schools and their cousins (for example, Stanford and Duke) have recently been criticized for being bad for students and for malicious discrimination. Because of the incredible influence and advantages of these schools, the criticisms are worth considering. In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that my full-time philosophy department colleagues all attended the Ivy League as did my brother and I.

Why we should care about these schools? First, their graduates have an inordinate influence on the country. The last 28 years of the presidency and the last four presidents have all been Ivy League graduates. The same is true for the current and previous chief justice of the Supreme Court, five of the last eight secretaries of state, and five of the last eight secretaries of the treasury. Given that only 0.4 percent of college students attend the Ivy League, the influence is wildly out of proportion with the numbers.

Second, people who go to these schools rake it in. On average, graduates of the Ivy League, Stanford, and Duke make $100,000 or more and graduates of several of them average around $120,000. Given that a significant number of female graduates are stay-at-home mothers who either don’t work or work part time, this figure significantly underestimates what these people make.

The first criticism comes from William Deresiewicz in The New Republic. He argues that students should not choose the Ivy League (or their cousins) because students at such schools are not passionate about ideas, adopt a narrow view of what is important (specifically, affluence, credentials, and prestige), and are too likely to go into a narrow range of fields (for example, investment banking). A second criticism from Ron Unz in The American Conservative is that the Ivy League is moving far away from meritocracy by strongly discriminating against non-Jewish whites and Asians.

Deresiewicz’s criticism of Ivy League students not being passionate about ideas and adopting a narrow view of what is important appears to be solely based on anecdotes accumulated during his decade as an English professor at Yale. My experience, in contrast, was that my classmates loved discussing ideas. However, neither his nor my experiences are much evidence as they are mere anecdotes. Contra Deresiewicz, I find it more likely that Ivy students are passionate about ideas, but also passionate about other things as well (love, career-building, and the arts) and there are only so many hours in the day.

Deresiewicz provides no evidence that Ivy League students value superficial things such as affluence and prestige over family, friends, and a balanced life and no evidence that they value the more meaningful things less than do other college students. Perhaps he should visit the colleges that are ranked among the top party schools.

Deresiewicz’s observation that Ivy League students choose Wall Street over being teachers, social workers, and clergy is not a bad thing. Finance-related fields (along with medicine and law) pay a lot and, usually, more money makes life go more smoothly. More fundamentally, people working in finance arguably contribute more to others’ lives than do teachers, social workers, and so on. The idea here is that in a free market, people tend to spend money in ways that make their lives go better. If this is correct, then, finance-related work pays more because people doing it tend to add more to people’s lives than do teachers, social workers, and so on.

A more interesting argument against attending the Ivy League is Malcom Gladwell’s claim, in David and Goliath, that it is better to be a big fish in a small pond (a college with fewer elite students) than a small fish in a big pond. Perhaps this is true, but it has no connection to the notion that the Ivy League makes students less curious, more superficial, and money-oriented.

Ron Unz’s criticism is far more troubling. He provides evidence that the Ivies sharply discriminate against Asians and non-Jewish whites. Data from Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford in their book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal and from Russel Nieli indicate that to have the same chance of getting in as a black student with an SAT score of 1190, a Hispanic, white, and Asian students would have to have SATs of 1230, 1410, and 1550 respectively (note the data is dated). For the past 20 years, across the Ivy League the percentage of Asian students has been frozen at roughly 17 percent despite their increasingly dominating the high school competition in both standardized test scores (for example, SATs) and intellectual achievement (for example, Physics Olympiad winners).

Unz argues that white non-Jews face even harsher discrimination. Worse, this is in part explained by the distaste the Ivies have for their red state activities and values. This harsh discrimination is present even if, as Kevin MacDonald points out, one controls for Ashkenazi Jews’ high average IQ.

It is unclear what to make of Unz’s criticism. The Ivies are private institutions. They are morally permitted, and to some degree legally allowed, to value things other than academic merit. Long ago moved away from admitting people on purely academic merit, although a few of their cousins (for example, Caltech and MIT) largely do so.

As a historical matter, the elite colleges have gotten much better at picking out the best students. Students in the Ivy League today are, on average, far smarter than their predecessors. These colleges also spend enormous amounts per student (on average $92,000 on student-oriented resources per student) and schools that fail to demonstrate to potential students and alumni that their graduates outperform competitors will quickly lose market share.

In summary, there is little reason to believe that the Ivies are bad for students’ souls. They may discriminate against some groups, but this is not especially troubling given that they are private institutions and, in any case, subject to market discipline.

Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com