I recently read three articles from the Atlantic. They were Who Needs Harvard by Gregg Easterbrook, Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn, and The Truth about Harvard by Ross Douthat. (I was on a Harvard kick as I was thinking about b-school when I got the articles.) The first article is available online, the other two are too new, so I had to make copies at the library.
Anyway, in Who Needs Harvard, Easterbrook looks at if going to Harvard really makes a difference, and mentions the study by Krueger and Dale mentioned in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Krueger/Dale found that while Ivy League grads make more money, if you compare the Ivy grads to other grads who got accepted at the Ivy's but didn't attend, earnings come out the same. In others, ability is the key, not the school. Another interesting conclusion from that study was that selectivity doesn't correlate with earnings, but the cost of admission does. "Students who attended a high-priced institution eventually earned more, on average, than students who had been accepted by equally selective colleges, but who enrolled at a less-expensive alternative." Weird. Easterbrook goes on to talk about the "Gotta-Get-Ins" (the only one I applied to was Washington University in St. Louis, and while I got accepted, I didn't attend, due to the high cost, and my not receiving the full ride fellowship (with $500 quarterly cash stipend) I had applied for. There's a good quotation in the article as well, "The child who is rejected at Harvard will probably go on to receive a superior education and have an outstanding college experience at any of dozens of other places, but start off feeling inadequate and burdened by the sense of disappointing his or her parents. Many parents now set their children up to consider themselves failures if they don't get the acceptance letter from a super-selective school." I think I put this kind of pressure on myself when I was in high school, thinking I had to go to an Ivy. Perhaps the most noteworthy piece from Easterbrook's article is that "There is one group of students that even Krueger and Dale found benefited significantly from attending elite schools: those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Kids from poor families seem to profit from exposure to Amherst or Northwestern much more than kids from well-off families." One hypothesis for this is that the kids from poverty aren't used to "learning to act dispassionate and outwardly composed at all times, regardless of how they might feel inside." I would guess that that's part of it, but it's more just learning how to behave in a society of "haves" vs. the society of the "have-not's."
Lost in the Meritocracy, looks at how Kirn went from a small school in St. Paul on to Princeton, and talks about what it's like being the poor kid at Princeton. He's got some crazy tales of financial inequity, where his hotel heiress roommate brings home a case of champagne that her father gave her, and share a bottle with him, but after they finish swigging off the bottle, she says "You owe me twenty." (Which he doesn't have, coming from the poor, mid-Western family.) Another anecdote is how one day, they get all this new furniture for their common room, and the roomies tell him "We figured out everyone's share of the new living room. Yours is five hundred and ten." Kirn hadn't ordered any of it, and was shocked. Of course, the roomies were ridiculous, and voted to ban him from touching anything in the room that he hadn't chipped in for (which meant the whole living room was off, because they had got an Oriental rug that was bigger than the room itself). He also talks about how some kid drives him out to his family castle, says "My family's estate. Behold, poor serf! Behold a power you will never know!" and leaves him there, resulting in Kirn taking three hours to walk and hitchhike back to campus. Kirn then talks about how he gets rejected as a Rhodes, but gets to go to Oxford on a Keasby scholarship. Anyway, the part of the article I really related to was how far one can get, how much prestige one can obtain (Princeton and Oxford, oh my!) without learning a damn thing, but how it's a "ticket to the ruling class." I'm not sure I agree with him, but it definitely relates to the conclusion from the earlier article, about how the kids who benefit most from elite schools are the ones who come from the least. Perhaps the whole point is learning how to play the game?
The last article, The Truth about Harvard, is where recent grad Ross Douthat, talks about how the academics at Harvard aren't really any good, due to grade inflation, but also because "no one pushes back." In other words, the professors don't care, and don't challenge their students, the students are trying to do the least amount of work for the best grade, and grade inflation runs rampant. Douthat mentions a professor, Harvey Mansfield, who combats grade inflation by "giving each student two grades: one for the registrar and the public record, and the other in private. The official grades will conform with Harvard's inflated distribution, in which one-fourth of all grades given to undergraduates are now A's, and another fourth are A-'s. The private grades, from the course assistants and me, will be less flattering. Those grades will give students a realistic, useful assessment of how well they did and where they stand in relation to others." Makes me wonder though - if you have the cream of the crop, is there anything wrong with half the student's getting A's? Since GPA is such a defining factor in our society, how does a 3.0 from Harvard compare to a 4.0 from Backwater Community College?
This problem isn't new of course - it was seen in my high school even. We had weighted course, that every grade was a point higher (5.0 for an A, 4.0 for a B, etc etc), but there were several students who figured they'd just take the easier course because they knew they could get an A, while they might get a C, or a 3.0, in the weighted class. In other words, the student's GPA would be punished even though they learned more. I took Honor's Chemistry 102 and 103 in college, and Dr. Seliskar basically told us at the beginning of the quarter we'd all get A's if we made an honest effort, because we could all definitely get A's in Chem 102 and 103. I probably got around an 85% in that class, and still got an A. I think there was only one or two B's in the whole class. Of course, Dr. Seliskar was wrong, as when I took Chem 101 my senior year, I got a B - but that was mainly since I only went to 1 week of lecture, and then the exams. (I had taken Honor's Chem because I wanted the Honor's hours - not to mention it being a great class, that I really did learn some new stuff in, even though I had tested out of freshman chem.)
So what's the solution to address this problem? We have bright and talented students everywhere - should they be compared to other shining stars, or should they be compared to their peers as a whole? Standardized tests compares to the population, maybe grades at universities should as well? I'm not sure there's a way to do this reasonably though . . . as Who Needs Harvard mentions, the general quality of education is improving, as we have more and more people entering academia, resulting in a greater number of good teachers, for a limited number of teaching positions. In other words, while the top schools get the very best teachers, because there are so many more now, there are still great teachers left for other schools as well.
Maybe it's a non-issue? Maybe grad schools already have a way of factoring in the quality of the school fairly. I keep thinking my 3.8 from UC is crap, because I know I didn't really learn anything (I took Kirn's approach to college), but maybe a 3.8 is a 3.8 is a 3.8?