Elitism and Education (Part II): Rethinking the conventional wisdom of an elite undergraduate education

Share SALT News

Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

This story, “Placing the Blame as Students are Buried in Debt,” caught my attention when it appeared in the New York Times in May.   The report features Cortney Munna, a 26-year-old NYU grad who is buried under $100,000 of student debt.  Journalist Ron Lieber tells us that Ms. Munna would “struggle” to make her student loan payments if she had to, but she’s been deferring them since her 2005 graduation, in part by taking night classes.  Lieber writes:

“This is not a long-term solution, because the interest on the loans continues to pile up. So in an eerie echo of the mortgage crisis, tens of thousands of people like Ms. Munna are facing a reckoning. They and their families made borrowing decisions based more on emotion than reason, much as subprime borrowers assumed the value of their houses would always go up.”

This story, which also appears under the headline, “Another Debt Crisis is Looming, This One in Student Loans,” discusses the range of stakeholders who could be blamed for the situation in which Ms. Munna and many others find themselves:  the universities, the parents, and–of course–the lenders.  At one point Lieber suggests a “shared failure of parenting and underwriting.”  He continues:

“How could her mother have let her run up that debt, and why didn’t she try to make her daughter transfer to, say, the best school in the much cheaper state university system in New York? ‘All I could see was college, and a good college and how proud I was of her,’ [her mother] said. ‘All we needed to do was get this education and get the good job. This is the thing that eats away at me, the naïveté on my part.’”

For me, one of the most striking aspects of this cautionary tale is the emotional component driving the decision for Cortney to attend an elite university like NYU rather than a state school.  How common is this, I wonder?  Cortney’s family is described as middle class, but the story’s details indicate quite a bit of financial insecurity (Cortney’s  farther died when she was 13, and Cortney’s mom was going back to college to finish her degree at the same time Cortney was at NYU).  It seems that Cortney and her mom may have picked NYU for what they thought it offered in possible class mobility and security.  Ironically, at this point they have neither.

All this got me thinking (again) about the attraction of elite tertiary educational institutions.  They enjoy enormous cachet, and conventional wisdom suggests that attending them opens up opportunities that not all college (or law school) graduates enjoy.  (But see this recent study in the context of law school admissions).   In fact, two studies suggest that the eliteness of one’s undergraduate degree has relatively little effect on future earnings.

But salary is only one measure of success.  Another is what a degree from an elite college does, both short-term and long-term, to open doors via alumni networks, public perception, and so forth.  One such door is that to graduate and professional school admission.  As progressive law professors, we are supposed to be sensitive to privilege and at least somewhat intentional about not re-creating it.  Yet if  we give too much weight to elite undergraduate degrees in the law school admissions process we are very often doing just that.

Admissions at any given law school is, in fact, a zero sum game, so we may close doors to graduates of less elite schools, often public colleges and universities (the eliteness of which varies greatly from state to state), if we uncritically favor graduates of their elite counterparts.  In the context of grad and professional school admissions, we should bear in mind that it is often the graduates of public institutions of higher education–where annual tuition may be just a couple thousand dollars, in contrast to an elite school’s $50,000–who most need the boost grad or professional school would confer in terms of class mobility.  Further, while the tendency may be to see state school grads as lacking vision and ambition, we could instead view them as models of prudence and sound financial judgment.  Particularly when a student is from a lower socioeconomic stratum and/or is first generation to get to college, s/he may have grown up with enormous financial insecurity.  We should appreciate the courage and drive it has taken for him/her to make the investment of time and money just to get that degree, to take that initial step up the mobility ladder.  We should appreciate this even more, of course, if the student has performed well.  Expecting such students to have the added “confidence” to have spent tens (even hundreds) of thousands of extra dollars to get a degree from an elite institution–and to judge the student unfavorably against those who have–overlooks critical context and invites folly.

Cross-posted at UC Davis Faculty Blog.