What Colleges Sell

The recent college-admissions scandal has me, and probably many of you, thinking about the institutional power of elite colleges. It’s remarkable that even those we would consider society’s “winners” aren’t immune to their pull. Take for example Olivia Giannulli, who is from a wealthy family; has nearly 2 million YouTube followers; owns a successful cosmetics line (pre-scandal, anyway); and whose parents, Laurie Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to get her and her sister accepted to USC.

Why?

The standard line is that the point of college is to learn. Getting into a better school avails one of better information, which translates into more marketable skills—human capital accrual, in economics jargon. The many deficiencies of this view have birthed the somewhat-cynical “signaling theory”: the idea that college degrees serve mainly as signals to employers of positive, pre-existing characteristics like intelligence or attention to detail.

Signalling theory is powerfully convincing, but it doesn’t fully explain the insanity endemic to the elite college scene. There’s more going on at the individual, familial, and societal levels.

First the individual. If the human capital isn’t the point, social capital could be. The student bodies of elite schools are well curated for networking among the intelligent, the wealthy, and what we might call the “legacy crowd”—non-mutually exclusive groups that mutually benefit from this four-year mixer. Who you sit next to in class might matter more than what’s being taught.

Colleges, particularly those of renown, provide a sense of unabashed community that is in short supply elsewhere in American life. If you read universities’ marketing or speak with admissions staff, this is often a selling point. The idea that former classmates and fraternity brothers become a nepotistic social network post-graduation is intuitive, and probably a very compelling reason to attend a particular school.¹

What’s true for the individual is true for the family. Parents want the best for their children, and they know the kinds of doors attending the right school will open. But for parents, there are added elements at stake: self- and peer-appraisal.² That is, as educational attainment has become accepted not only as a means to but validation of social mobility, parents have come to define their success by the institutions their children attend. YouGov polling found that thirty-four percent of parents would pay a college prep organization to take a college admittance test on their child’s behalf. One in four would pay college officials to get their child into a good school.

college bribery 2

I’d bet this is an understatement caused by social-desirability bias.³

Last up, and most interesting, is society at large. Even though most of us won’t attend a very prestigious university, if we attend one at all, the legitimacy of those institutions still rests on our perception. For us to be bought in, we need a culturally acceptable premise for the power enjoyed by Harvard, Yale, and the like—a role that can’t be filled by the networking and status-driven benefits I’ve described so far. This brings us full circle, back to the idea of higher education as a method of information conveyance.

Though the human capital accrual theory of education is probably bunk, most people’s belief in it feels sincere. In my view, this is the confluence of three phenomena: observed correlations between educational attainment and positive outcomes, our cultural commitments to self-sufficiency and equal opportunity, and a mostly unstated but potent desire to manufacture equality of outcomes.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

The meritocratic, knowledge-driven higher education model is a product we’re all happy to buy because we like what it says about us. Its violation is disillusioning on a societal level, hence the disproportionate outrage created by scandal involving some 50 students.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with and expectations of the upper echelons of higher education. If we find signaling theory compelling, and I personally do, shouldn’t a society committed to equality of opportunity and social mobility seek to marginalize, rather than fetishize, the institutional power of these universities?

Somewhat more darkly, we should ask ourselves if our belief in the transformative power of education might not be the product of our collective willing ignorance—a noble lie we tell ourselves to avoid confronting problems to which we have few or no solutions. If pre-existing traits—innate intelligence, social connections, wealth, and others—most accurately explain one’s success, what of the increasingly selective institutions that facilitate their convergence?

*

Footnotes:

  1. Though I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal claims to this effect (including from an admissions officer during a grad school interview), I don’t have any hard proof. If one of you knows of a such a study, point me in the right direction.
  2. I just wanted to note that this feels very in line with the general trend of wealthier people having fewer children but spending an enormous amount of resources to give them even very marginal advantages.
  3. This is when people respond to polls in the ways they think are more likely to be viewed favorably by others. Basically, people under-report bad behavior (maybe using drugs or committing crimes) and over-report good behavior (like voting).

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