How I Think You Should Try to Get into an Elite College


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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97 Responses

  1. Avatar ScarletNumber says:

    University of Indiana is a perfectly acceptable place to go if you plan on eventually taking over the world.

    It seems to be working for Mark Cuban, except he probably calls the school by its proper name.Report

  2. Avatar aaron david says:

    You know, Harvard is ridiculously easy to get into.

    You just need to choose the right major. (Divinity)Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      From what I see the divinity school doesn’t offer undergraduate degrees. Applying to graduate programs is a different duck and in Harvard’s case much more easy for perhaps every major. Their undergrad program is truly microscopic.Report

      • Avatar aaron david says:

        Good point. I used to work with someone who had gone to Harvard divinity, and he always said is was the easy back door entrance.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumber says:

        The Kennedy School of Government is also a popular backdoor way to a Harvard degree. (Bill O’Reilly)

        Sort of like Teachers College at Columbia, or the Ag school at Cornell (Keith Olbermann)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        But the thing is, TC is undoubtedly the top undergraduate education school in the country. And a degree from there likely doesn’t do much for you in non-education related fields. So it isn’t like people are applying to TC, majoring into elementary ed, and then trying to parlay their Columbia degree into a job elsewhere. People go to TC because it is a phenomenal education school and they want to work in education; not because the name on the degree will open doors in other arenas.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Cornell’s agricultural school is pretty damn good, though. For an agricultural school — I can cite some nice research out of it, even.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The old saying about Cornell is that “It is the easiest Ivy League to get into but the hardest to stay in”.

        The thing about the Ag School is that it is officially a land-grant college and New York State residents who attend the Agriculture, Ecology, Industrial and Labor Relations schools at Cornell pay less tuition, they basically pay public university tuition.Report

      • Avatar Lyle says:

        So lets ask how hard is it to get into a top graduate program from say a Big 10 school? For a lot of areas the graduate degree is the really important one. One example is how much easier does an ivy league undergraduate degree make it to get into a top law school?Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Harvard has a program for pastry chefs? (“I minored in marzipan.”)Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    “1. The school you attend is weakly related to your ultimate career success.
    The University of Indiana is a perfectly acceptable place to go if you plan on eventually taking over the world”

    When I’m seeing a Harvard law graduate running for President who’s married to a Harvard MBA who’s running Goldman Sachs, that tells me Harvard is indeed the place to go if you plan of eventually taking over the world.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      The Presidency isn’t really what I would consider taking over the world, though I understand why many people would feel that it would.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      When I’m seeing a Harvard law graduate running for President who’s married to a Harvard MBA who’s running Goldman Sachs, that tells me Harvard is indeed the place to go if you plan of eventually taking over the world.

      Jesus, when I think about what a nutjob he really is, I can’t help but think you’re right. “I know it was you Harvard. You broke my heart!”

      But really: this is a guy who’s made a career outa opposing Obamacare and now that he’s insuranceless says “well, we’re gonna go on the exchange and sign up for some sweetsauce” as if hes just another freedom-haters who needed insurance.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Meh, it’s a bs gotcha, because he has to do what he’s doing because of the rules. And that’s all I’ll say about that because this post isn’t about that.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        But hilariously ironic.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        I was briefly listening to Hannity’s radio show when he discussed this story, and in under five minutes or less Hannity said “God help [Ted Cruz]” if he gets sick while on an Obamacare plan and wondered if Cruz could just buy a policy on his own, outside of Obamacare. It made me revisit the eternal “evil or stupid” question, since this betrays an astounding amount of ignorance about the law that has been in effect for millions of Americans for years now.

        First, Cruz’s plan is in all likelihood mostly the same as what someone in his position would have bought five years ago: offered by a private company to a private individual without any gov’t subsidies to make it cheaper. The difference is that the plan is subject to various regulatory mandates that it cover certain things in certain ways that wouldn’t have been there before. So Hannity’s “God Help him” comment implies that Hannity thinks this is some awful government plan, but it isn’t, and last I checked the sophisticated Conservative knock on the ACA was that it required plans to be too generous with benefits, not too stingy. Beyond that, Hannity seems to be unaware that going to the exchanges and getting an Obamacare plan just is what buying health insurance is now, if you don’t get a policy through your employer or the gov’t or whatever. So Hannity’s comment is nonsensical and a liberal criticism of him is dumb, he has no choice but to buy a plan on the exchanges, but that doesn’t actually mean that much for someone in his income bracket.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Yes Don all true. Also Cruz is rich so he can pay for the highest level of insurance that will cover everything. . The only reason the ACA comes into it is because Cruz is a senator so they have to go through the same system as federal employees i believe. That is the extent of Cruz’s involvement with the ACA.

        Of course Cruz didn’t seem to be aware of the tax benefits for employee paid insurance but that doesn’t fit his ideological view so why would he.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    This assumes the applicant is non-legacy, non-filthy rich with parents willing to become big donors, and not the child of the famous or powerful… Yes?Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Yes, Kazzy, I think you’re right about that. It’s written to all the folks who aspire to membership in The Elite, who aren’t smart enough to figure out how to get in on their own (that’s a mark against em right there!, who think narrowly about life’s opportunities and are willing to compromise who they are to attain High status.

      Something like that.Report

    • Avatar Mo says:

      That falls under pointy.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Yes, Kazzy. I’m assuming that set won’t be Googling for how to get into college.

      There are actually other special situations that would help you get in. Even if your family has never donated, if they own a family business and you are the heir, that would be a significant point in your favor. As I mentioned, schools seem to love people who don’t need them.Report

  5. Avatar kenB says:

    Whenever I come across people giving out free advice on how to get into an elite college, I’m always a little suspicious that they’re purposely giving out bad advice because someone they know is planning to apply to elite colleges and they want to drag down the competition.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Always a possibility!

      Of course, I personally know that wasn’t my intention. If I were to guess why this might not be helpful, it would be that I’ve never personally worked in an admissions office, let alone an elite school’s admissions office. I only know what some of them have told me in relatively brief conversations.

      That said, I think it’s a good bet that someone following the strategy suggested would maximize their chances compared to someone simply trying to be well-rounded by accumulating more and more activities.Report

  6. Avatar T. Greer says:

    You want to get into an elite school if you want to take over the world.

    I’ll quote from an earlier piece of mine:

    The story is larger than Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but the subsequent careers of Ivy League alumni reveal a lot about the nature of America’s class woes. An Ivy League education is the most direct route to the heights of American wealth and power: Wall Street firms fix hiring quotas to ensure that enough graduates from the Ivy League’s most prestigious schools are hired (an offer graduates are glad to take – in 2009 40% of Princeton undergrads went to Wall Street after graduation!), while those with more ambition have access to even greater heights. 10% of U.S. Senators, 50% of all U.S. billionaires, and 60% of the President’s cabinet have Ivy League alma maters to their name. [2]

    It is a narrow funnel from which to form a ruling class.

    Source: “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream,” The Scholar’s Stage 1 July 2015.

    References for those numers can be found at the bottom of the essay.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Thanks for the link. It’s a good post, and I share most of the post’s concerns.

      You want to get into an elite school if you want to take over the world.

      This is not incompatible with the possibility of going somewhere other than an elite school and then taking over the world anyway.

      Neither is it incompatible with the idea that most of those attending elite schools fail to take over the world.

      You mention Wall Street firms’ affinity for elite grads, but their median Wall Street career will still be something like two years of making a lot of money, of which they spend approximately 100% of it before leaving for a lower stress middle management job somewhere they’d have never considered working for before and then proceeding to stay stuck there. This isn’t to say that’s a bad life. But they aren’t among those few thousand people who in my mind control things. (I did a sloppy job in not articulating what I meant by that.) When you consider that elite undergrad schools graduate a few thousand people each year, it makes sense that most of them simply end up being high-earning professionals rather the General Electric CEOs.

      If we look at it the other way and ask what percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs went to an elite undergraduate school, I don’t know what you’d find. But the random bios I’ve sampled suggest to me that under 50% went to an elite school for their undergraduate degrees. (They may have later added on an elite MBA or something, but this post concerns undergraduate degrees only.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I wonder about the arrow of causality with regards to taking over the world. Is someone who graduates from Harvard significantly more likely or better positioned to take over the world than if that same person had graduated from Swathmore? Or, rather, is the type of person who is more likely or better positioned to take over the world more likely to get into Harvard in the first place?

        I doubt Harvard bestows super powers upon people. Instead, I think it is better able to acquire those already with super powers and put the Harvard stamp on them.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        It also introduces them to a network of powerful sponsors, allies, and minions.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        There was that one study that looked at people who got into elite colleges but chose instead to go to lesser state schools. They found that some time later they earned the same amount as their peers who did in fact go to the elite college.

        Even knowing that result though, I’d have a hard time actually recommending someone turn Harvard down though. I just wouldn’t call them an idiot if they chose to go elsewhere themselves.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I suspect there is a greater discrepancy in terms of influence than money. A lot of stellar Harvard graduates will take prestigious or important jobs that don’t pay especially well. Self-selection still an issue, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on.

        Whether you should go to Harvard depends on what you want to do. My wife probably could have gone to Harvard, but the biggest difference it would have made for her is that she would have graduated with debt. Harvard would have conferred little non-social benefit. Her sister the lawyer? Different story.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        “It also introduces them to a network of powerful sponsors, allies, and minions.”
        what a baaa-aad idea.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        The path I have generally heard is

        1. Two years at McKinnsey

        2. MBA time

        3. Some more time consulting

        4. Middle management at a good company.

        Is this true?Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        It also introduces them to a network of powerful sponsors, allies, and minions.

        Seriously, Harvard & Yale minions really are the best minions! Quite a step above your average State school henchmen.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        @saul-degraw ,
        It’s increasingly difficult to get into a top ten MBA school with just two years at McKinsey, but I do know at least a couple of people who mostly followed the path you outlined. They didn’t attend elite undergrad schools, but they did go to top-ten MBA programs.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The people I know who took that path did attend elite or elite enough undergrad institutions.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Has there ever been a time when Wall Street and the White Shoe firms did not take from the best schools?

      Vikram is right that it is not perfect. My good but not amazingly ranked local law school always managed to send a handful of grads to some of the Big Law firms but not to the numbers that Stanford or Cal did. Vassar is a very hard undergrad to get into but it does not exactly get a lot of recruiters from the big consulting companies coming to campus (or I didn’t pay attention to that which is an entirely reasonable possibility):

      From the link:

      “As late as 1952 the mean SAT scores of the incoming Harvard freshman class was barely above the national mean.”

      This might be true but in 1952 the chances of getting into Harvard depended on going to a handful of boarding or private day schools and having a proper last name. There might have been a handful of people named Schwartz or Chan or Cuomo but many more would have been denied entry because of their last names. Richard Feynman talks about how he was denied admission to Columbia because of his last name and their “Jewish quota” was filled up in his autobiography. There are boomer Jews at my mom’s congregation who can talk about being discriminated against and fired from Jobs because of their last names as recently as the 1960s and 1970s. One guy had a lab at an elite university and was told to pack his bags one day suddenly because he was Jewish.

      So this becomes the question. Is it better to have a world where Harvard has massively high SAT scores but takes from more than a handful of private schools or is it better to have a world where students at Harvard have SAT scores closer to the norm but all come from St. Pauls or Exeter?

      I think 1952 was much more of an aristocratic world than 2015 United States.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    When it was John Kerry vs. George Bush in 2004, someone asked “what are the odds that two guys who were in Skull and Bones would run against each other for president?”

    The mathematical answer was something like “one in a couple billion” but it was quickly pointed out that the real answer was something closer to 50/50.

    It’s not *JUST* Harvard that you have to get into (or Yale, in this case). It’s the right fraternal organization.

    So I’d say that one of the things you should definitely be by the time you apply is, to pick an organization out of a hat, a member of the masons.Report

  8. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    [This was a reply to Jaybird.]
    A similar thought occurred to me why while reading @t-greer ‘s post. It mentions that qualified poor kids don’t apply to selective schools at the same rate as qualified rich kids. I wonder though, whether even if the poor kids do apply and attend, they have the same shot at those Wall Street jobs his post mentions.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      From what I understand, a large number of the high-powered bankers on Wall Street are, believe it or not, members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      A: no, they don’t. Kids without connections become worker bees or small-town players. Kids with connections get interviews at Goldman Sachs (or its approximate equivalent). Class matters. Exceptions, rock stars, YMMV, etc., but for most folks, class and background matter more than education.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Some do.

        What is interesting about Goldman Sachs is that it used to be a Jewish firm because Jews were unable to get jobs at places like J.P. Morgan. They founded their own banks. Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns are also former “Jewish firms”

        Also from what I heard, Wall Street was considered a sleepy backwater in the 1960s and 1970s. The documentary Inside Job contained an anecdote about a Bond guy a Merril Lynch. In the 1970s, he needed to get an extra job to support his family. By the 1980s, he was making a million a year or more from the Bond business.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        your sources are well out of date, methinks.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Goldman Sachs and equivalent firms and instituions hire a few young college grads without connections these days in order to at least maintain the illusion of meritocracy even though connections really help. Most of their hirings probably come from connections of some sort though, especially for the plummest entry-level positions.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        I disagree with the connections view. In fact, I would say that what we are seeing now is the meritocracy on steroids. It’s just that we have a tendency to believe that meritocracy means lots of social mobility and open access to everyone, when in fact, it is working in the opposite direction. Meritocracy is proving to be a more rigid social structure in many ways than what came before.

        There are two ways to get a job out of school: on campus recruiting or by applying through the web site (even someone who’s resume is being slipped near the top of the pile because of connections has to come in through one of these two routes). The Bulge Bracket Banks and the top management consulting firms do almost all of their recruiting on campus at the top schools. Where the connections come into play is getting into the elite schools in the first place. Yes, connections can help someone not at one of the top schools get his or her resume considered outside of campus recruiting, but that’s just not where the majority of new hires are coming from. Most firms use off-campus recruiting to plus up numbers when they don’t get enough candidates from on-campus recruiting.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        ps – the other way that connections come into play is that the kids who understand this world have a leg up on the kids who don’t. They know the culture, so they get points on “fit,” which is a fairly important thing for most jobs.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Goldman Sachs and equivalent firms and instituions hire a few young college grads without connections these days in order to at least maintain the illusion of meritocracy

        That might be the observable effect from the perspective of an outsider, but it’s not the reason Goldman Sachs hires who they hire.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I did say “used to be”.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Though even in law, there are still white-shoe firms that have their old reputation of being “Jewish firms”

        Proskauer Rose and Paul Hastings still have reputations or histories of being known as “Jewish firms”. Cadwalader Whickersham and Taft does not have this history.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Also +1 to what JR said for the on-campus recruitment process, which tends to be a fairly standardized. I don’t get the impression that they walk into Harvard thinking “how do we differentiate between the true elites here at Harvard and the lower class people here.”Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        We are also ignoring internships here. Connections can help land an internship or co-op, since the process for those can be a bit more irregular, depending on where you apply. And lots of companies will put former interns to the top of the hire pile.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        and what do you take from that?
        I’m not nearly as skilled as some at slicing words with a knife, but this’ll do for a bit of light amusement.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        jr, I think it is debatable whether the current system is really a meritocracy. I mean ostensibly it is because getting into the right schools really is more of a matter of earning it than going to the right private school and having the right name, although the latter still helps a lot in many cases.

        Yet, if top firms only select from a few colleges and universities for staffing rather than opening the application process to a wider audience, is it really a meritocracy? Its more like a variation of the old system where rather than coming from the right family, you need to come from the right school. Even in the right school, you need to come across a particular way. Not to nerdy and not to jocky at the same time. Its more like self-selecting for a certain personality type in a limited number of places than a meritocracy where ability matters.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:


        I disagree with the connections view. In fact, I would say that what we are seeing now is the meritocracy on steroids.

        Can you expand on this a bit more? Given the paucity of reasonably predictive metrics one can use to hire someone, and given that measurement of performance is a historical wicked problem in management literature, I don’t see it likely at all that our current methods of employing and promoting anybody is coupled tightly to actual performance (it certainly doesn’t reflect my own experience, not that my own experience is generalizable.) What makes you think we’re in a meritocracy now?

        It’s just that we have a tendency to believe that meritocracy means lots of social mobility and open access to everyone, when in fact, it is working in the opposite direction

        Generally speaking, I’d expect an actual meritocracy to wind up with ~5% of the folks making ~95% of the money, so on outcome I wouldn’t expect a meritocracy to encourage a lot of social mobility *or* open access, so at least on that score I agree with you.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      I read an article recently that looked at how colleges recruited and gained students. They tended to overfocus on wealthy white suburbs and underfocus on poorer Black and Hispanic communities. As a result, top
      Black and Hispanic students applied to lower-ranked schools than less-qualified-but-wealthier whites. I can’t for the life of me remember where I read it but I’ll try to dig it up.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        I can believe that, but I could also believe that it could be the result of seemingly benign reasons. If you are a college recruiter and you want to make yourself available to the most number of interested students, it makes sense to spend your limited time going to wealthy white suburbs where students will pack the halls when you talk. This does have the effect of fewer visits to poor and minority communities, but it’s worth noting that it doesn’t require anyone to be mean or racist for that to be the result.

        Black and Hispanic students applied to lower-ranked schools than less-qualified-but-wealthier whites

        T. Greer’s post linked above in the comments references some of that.Report

  9. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I am a graduate of Vassar. Vassar is elite but not quite at the Ivy-Stanford-MIT level. We are probably considered a first or second tier liberal arts college. According to US News and World Report, Vassar is “most selective” and ranked 11th for best liberal arts college. I was admitted in April 1998 and graduated in 2002. This is my observation on what has happened since my time as an undergrad

    There has been a significant arms race in college admissions standards from when I was admitted until now. It is exponentially harder to get into an elite university.

    When I applied in 1998, I had grades that were all over the map (ranging from below average to excellent), good but not amazing SAT (1310, 660 Verbal and 650 Math) and SAT II scores. Above average after-school activities (Drama club, lit mag, lots of volunteering). None of this was out of ball park amazing like the examples you gave though. Yet in 1998 it was enough to get me on the wait-list and enough to get me off the wait list when space opened up.

    I don’t think this would happen today. If I applied to Vassar today or even sometime in the mid-Aughts, I am pretty sure my application would go straight to the reject pile.

    IIRC the Millennials are a bit of a mini-baby boom and people from my cohort (Late Generation X) are a smaller population, so I might have had a numbers advantage. There was a bit more supply than demand or closer at 1:1 ration when I applied to schools in 1997. But that can’t be the entire story. There is something that turned getting into an elite college or university much harder. It was always competitive but is now dramatically more competitive.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      “I am a graduate of Vassar.”

      Really? I hadn’t heard that.


      • Avatar kenB says:

        Next we should have a topic where it seems terribly relevant to mention one’s high SAT scores…Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        Oh crap, just realized scores were mentioned. I need to stop barely skimming and replying at work.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Sorry. I probably do mention it too much. I just thought that and the SAT scores were relevant to mention in the arms race.

        In my defense, I also say that I couldn’t get in today based on my high school record.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I had high SAT scores and I went to a commuter college.

        D&D. Not even once.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Non-conform with me, Saul.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        @saul-degraw Don’t apologize! I’m just giving some friendly ribbing.Report

      • Avatar kenB says:

        The nice thing about the really elite schools is that you can be strategically vague about where you went but everyone will have a good idea what you meant, as long as you say it with the right amount of hesitation and reluctance — “I went to college in Boston” (or New Haven, or Silicon Valley).Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I hate when people do that because it strikes me more as faux-modesty than anything else. Though I suppose there are haters out there. When someone tells me that they went to school or law school “just outside Boston” or “in Boston (which usually means Harvard), I am always tempted to play dumb and ask them how they liked Suffolk or Emerson.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Plenty of people do that too. Commuter school is relative though. I know a guy from undergrad who grew up across the street from campus because his dad worked for Vassar.
        If you grow up in Harlem, Columbia can be a commuter college! Same with NYU, Fordham, etc!

        This doesn’t change the fact that over the last decade to fifteen years it has gotten exponentially harder to get into good colleges and universities for a variety of reasons. I find this interesting.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      There really isn’t one good reason why getting into good colleges is much more difficult. Its more like a bunch of factors working together. It basically boils down to supply and demand. Their are more kids that meet the requirements for slots at elite colleges than there are slots for the kids. Part of this is because of a min-baby boom. Another part is that globalization really took off in earnest sometime in the early aughts and you had more international students applying for spots in college. When Saul and I went to college, there were fewer kids competing for the slots.

      Another reason why college is more difficult to get in is that it is increasingly becoming prohibitively expensive because corporate raider types found out that colleges have a lot of resources for robbing.Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        Another reason why college is more difficult to get in is that it is increasingly becoming prohibitively expensive because corporate raider types found out that colleges have a lot of resources for robbing.

        Could you elaborate on this? Do you mean that colleges have been selling off assets?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        The “good” qualifier is either vague or the wrong term (excessively broad a term for a narrow set of schools that fit that description).Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        There really isn’t one good reason why getting into good colleges is much more difficult.

        Isn’t it that more students want to go to those schools than the “not good” ones?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’m pretty sure he meant more difficult than it used to be.

        Seems to me that the main reason, though, is the growth of population happening faster than the growth of these schools. (Which is something Lee and I have talked upon, in agreement.)

        Though that’s only true depending on how you define “good” and hold the number of good schools at a constant. If you think there are more good schools than their used to be, it’s uncertain that it is indeed harder.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I agree that “good” is vague or wrong.

        I wonder how many colleges and universities can be considered elite or not in the United States.

        No one would question the eliteness of schools like the Ivy League, M.I.T., CalTech, or Stanford (which should be considered an Ivy League by now). The University of Chicago also fits this category.

        There are also a handful of really respected public ivies like Michigan, Cal, Virginia, William and Mary, University of Washington, etc.

        Where things get interesting is that there are a lot of schools that are not Ivy Leagues but are also really hard to get into and often very wealthy. These schools range from the Small Liberal Arts Colleges are in this category (Wesleyan, Smith, Williams, Colby, Vassar, Reed, Oberlin, Kenyon, Grinnell, the Calremont Colleges). There are also universities like Northwestern, USC, Washington University in St. Louis, Boston College, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Emory, Washington & Lee, the University of Rochester, etc.

        I’ve seen a lot of debates and articles on the Internet about whether attending colleges in the last category is financially worth it or not or whether students should just go public at that point. I’ve seen this debate carved into further tiers. People have argued that some liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, Williams, and Amherst are in the top-tier but others like Vassar and Oberlin might be very hard to get into but are not worth the money spent.

        This is very subjective of course. I’ve been in a lot of arguments where I defended the idea that Vassar was the right school for me and just got a lot of pushback from people asking “Why? Why couldn’t you find that at a state school?” In the end, they are not going to change my mind and I am not going to change their opinion either.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’m curious if there are more now that we can consider elite, or fewer. We may have reduced things to the point that only two or three schools really matter. Or we may argue that a degree of elite status has been conferred on schools that did not previously have it, like USC or NYU.

        The answer is probably along the lines of “The same or fewer elite schools, but more really good schools.”Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        jr, not exactly. Since most people use student loans to pay for their college education, colleges and universities have basically an unlimited source of money available. This means that they can increase the price of tuition above what the market could bear in order to receive funds. If you are an unscrupulous type, you can use this free money as a way to fund a high salary and bonuses for the top administraters of a school. NYU is the most infamous example of this. NYU is also infamous for another form of corruption in higher education where university assets are used to give gifts to your family and friends. John Sexton is the current President of NYU. His son and daughter-in-law have a nice tony NYU owned apartment even though neither is a professor at NYU. Henry Louis Gates also has an NYC apartment paid for by NYU even though he teaches at Harvard. These sorts of things are common at many colleges and universities.

        Will, elite or prestigious might be a better a word than good. I thought that I got a perfectly fine education at my university even though it is not considered an elite or presitigious college. The number of students that qualify for an education at an elite or prestigious school have increased greatly since 1945 but the number of elite or prestigious schools have remained constant or even decreased. My dad was born in the early part of the Baby Boom and he went to Cornell. Cornell, U.Penn, Brown, and Dartmouth had about the same level of prestiege as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton did in the mid-20th century. You could go to the former and it was considered a big deal. Today Cornell, U.Penn, Brown, and Dartmouth are still very good schools that are difficult to get into but are not even close to the level of prestiege that Harvard, Yale, or Princeton has.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        USC was always a powerhouse in LA and is older than UCLA. UCLA was not founded until the 1930s and it quickly developed a reputation for being liberal and Jewish. USC was known for being conservative and protestant.

        NYU and GWU are very good schools but still have reputations as being the places people go if they get rejected from Columbia and Georgetown respective. There is an old joke that GWU stands for “Georgetown Waitlist University”Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        My parents (who lived in and met in LA) mentioned USC as having the reputation for being a bit of a party school for students less academically serious than those who went to UCLA. (My parents attended neither school, though Dad did go to a different UC for graduate school.)Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        “Elite” in the OP does not include schools like NYU or USC, despite their merits. Their standards of admission are much more reasonable for great students.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Today Cornell, U.Penn, Brown, and Dartmouth are still very good schools that are difficult to get into but are not even close to the level of prestiege that Harvard, Yale, or Princeton has.

        Agreed, but is that perhaps in part because MIT, UC-Berkeley, and CalTech have taken their place?

        Similarly, I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that a student would pick Yale over Northwestern or the University of Chicago. Personally, I’d have gone to either of those before choosing Yale.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        Will Ferrell is a USC grad. He…

        joined the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. In college, he was known for a few pranks. On occasion, he would dress in a janitor’s outfit and stroll into his friends’ classes. He was also known for streaking around campus with a few other people from the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.

        He ended up with a degree in “Sports Information”.

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there are two (or maybe even three) conceptions of elite in this subthread. Will brought up the first one: a school could be elite via some metric of quality of education. Then there’s a more local conception Saul mentioned whereby the value of a degree is measured by the location in which it’s offered and the career goals of the student. Eg, if you wanna practice water law in the mountain west, I think a degree from Boulder carries more weight than a degree from Harvard would. Thirdly, there’s a more general cultural conception of elite where the cultural cache of a degree is valued more than either of the previous two metrics. I think this last one is the most interesting. And I’m not exactly sure how to convey what properties such a degree conveys to the holder such that it’s valued (almost!) as an end in itself.Report

      • Avatar j r says:


        I agree with the existence of what you are describing. There is a real principle-agent problem at work in college administration.

        I still don’t see the corporate raider connection, though.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I still don’t see the corporate raider connection, though.

        No, I don’t either. THe central part of the argument was that most students fund their education via loans, but given that student loans are a) backed by Gummint and b) can’t be defaulted, it only makes sense that investors would back those loans and that tuition rates go up, up, up, up, UP. (Students are in tatters. They’re shattered.)

        Course, the fact that all the people who continue to pay those high tuition rates continue to do so can’t be ignored as well.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        jr, it might have been a poor choice of words on my part. I was using corporate raider to describe a businessmen/university administrator who sees the business or university more or less as a source of income and gifts for himself, family, and friends rather than something to be run with care for the good of the students. It might not be a true corporate raider but I couldn’t find any other negative terms to describe such activity.

        Vkram, I am not sure that MIT, UC Berkeley, or CalTech really replaced Cornell, Brown, U.Penn, and Dartmouth. From reading Kevin Starr’s history of California, UC Berkeley always seemed to be an elite school at least on the regional level. Rich and upper-middle class Californians could send their kids to UC Berkeley with the same pride as sending a kid to Stanford. UC Berkeley also rose in national prominance during the interwar heyday of Cornell, U.Penn, Brown, and Dartmouth. UC Berkeley might have elipsed the latter but in prestiege but it did not replace them.

        MIT and CalTech were always elite universities for people interested in math and sciences. Cornell, U.Penn, Darmouth, and Brown had more wide-ranging curriculum like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. They weren’t exactly in competition with MIT or CalTech at anytime in their life as an institution. So I don’t know if you can say that MIT or CalTech replaced them.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        It might not be a true corporate raider but I couldn’t find any other negative terms to describe such activity

        How about “Seagull”?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

        Course, the fact that all the people who continue to pay those high tuition rates continue to do so can’t be ignored as well.

        Well, when all the messaging you hear all throughout your childhood is that you won’t get anywhere without a college degree, and you’ll need the elite degree to make it big…Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Stillwater, you have it right. Some schools are elite because they offer a very good education or at least a very good education in a particular subject like Johns Hopkins for medicine or MIT for math and science in general. Other schools are elite for the way Saul describes it. The last type of elite is that the university or college has such an international reputation that getting into it is seen as an accomplishment in itself and a degree from it signals all sorts of good things about you and your ability to work. This includes Harvard, Yale, or Princeton in the United States, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, the Sorbonne in France, and the University of Tokyo in Japan, etc.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        I think there are two (or maybe even three) conceptions of elite in this subthread

        Yeah, that’s probably my fault. I would include in no particular order
        – Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, MIT, U Penn, Cal Tech, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, and Northwestern.
        I could give or take a Brown or Cornell, but it’s a list something like that.

        I can understand someone saying Berkeley should be left out since it actually is a very large state school. Still, I can go through the faculty in my discipline and say just as good or better things about Berkeley’s than about Dartmouth’s.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        How do you feel about the more selective Small Liberal Arts Colleges?

        Basically: Swathmore, Colby, Bowdoin, Williams, Amherst, Smith, Vassar, Wesleyan, Oberlin, Kenyon, Reed, Swarthmore, Haverford, etc.

        Are these schools elite or not? And why? Are they just in a category that makes them hard to classify?

        Most of these schools are extremely selective. Not HYPS selective but close enough. However as I noted above, some are more likely to lead to the brass ring jobs than others but contrary to popular belief, Kenyon and Vassar grads do not end up as servers and bartenders and will be firmly middle class or above.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        The good reason I don’t include those is that I’ve never talked to admissions officers from any of those schools nor from officers of any other liberal arts colleges.

        The bad reason is that I actually don’t have much opportunity or reason to even think of any of those schools. I’m a business school guy, and to my knowledge none of those schools have business schools. If any of them have economics departments, I don’t know of any of the faculty there. They just aren’t on my radar.

        If someone wanted advice on how to get into one of those places, I’d probably point them to you before making any guesses myself.Report

  10. Avatar reveritt says:

    Combinations can work very well. AReport

    • Avatar reveritt says:

      Combinations can work well. A friend graduated from law school, decided he’d hate the practice of law, and spent a year getting a degree in library science. He then received offers from all over the world, as it turned out tons of institutions wanted someone with a law degree to manage their law libraries. If one goal of pursuing higher education is to become highly in demand, he could hardly have done better.Report