Universities like Oxford, Princeton, and Harvard are household names. With tuition as high as 60,000 dollars, before adding on living expenses, and acceptance rates dropping to below five percent, the competition to get into the world’s top schools is higher than ever. This is not due to a rapid increase in the quality of education, but rather a result of society’s growing obsession with prestige.
The Latin root of the word prestige, praestigium, means “illusion.” Prestige is quite literally an illusion, as quality and popularity do not always go hand in hand. The most prestigious of universities are the Ivies, holding some of the lowest overall acceptance rates in the world. The Ivy universities are historic institutions, meaning they currently possess a competitive headstart in acquiring the reputations they hold today. Higher demand leads to higher funding which eventually leads to higher quality resources and connections.
In today’s society, admittance to an Ivy is regarded as a mark of genius and a guarantee for success. However, research conducted by economists Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research revealed that students who were accepted into elite schools, like the Ivies, but went to less selective institutions, like a state school, went on to earn as Ivy League alumni. This is partly because Ivy League colleges don’t always have the highest quality of undergraduate education. In order to maintain their position at the forefront of academia, they are heavily focused on academic research, making professors less interested in teaching than they are in their personal projects. This dynamic is great for graduate study but is unsuitable for undergraduate study. Even in the case that there was a suitable professor willing to invest time and effort into their students, the competition among students at Ivies would make landing a spot in their class almost as difficult as admittance to the university itself. Alternatively, at small colleges that emphasize practical, hands-on learning, undergraduate students have a higher chance of receiving quality education because the professors there are able to prioritize teaching above all else.
Ivy universities are primarily humanities schools, lacking in greatness in STEM. Just because a school is prestigious overall, does not mean it is necessarily prestigious in specific majors– like Ivies and their nondistinctive STEM programs. In engineering, for example, only Cornell has T20 programs, while Brown falls in T60. Instead, schools like Carnegie Mellon University, University of Washington, Purdue, and UC Berkeley fall in the T10 for CS & engineering.
The University of Wisconsin has produced more Fortune 500 CEOs than Harvard. Texas A&M has produced more Fortune 500 CEOs than University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Dartmouth, or Princeton. Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania has a 100% placement rate for medical and law schools including places like Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins. Prestigious schools are not the sole catalysts to success. It’s not the school that makes the person, it’s the students that make the school. Just being at an Ivy will not magically enhance one’s intelligence or work ethic. That’s why so many accomplished people graduate from less prestigious schools, schools cannot change a student’s willingness to learn or work ethic, rather they simply serve as a tool for those willing to use it.
This goes to show that success is not defined by admittance to an “elite” school. College prestige is just an illusion. The determining factor for an individual’s occupational success is inner drive and resilience, not the school on their diploma.