Photo by Salt Water New England

Sunday, March 6, 2022

What advantages did an Ivy League university bestow?

Photo by Salt Water New England

 A reader asked:

I have a question that came up for me recently.  For those who went to an Ivy League university, what advantages did it bestow?   For the record, I did attend an Ivy League school and was asked for specifics and it got me wondering.  What about resources, social connections, bragging rights, and actual instruction?  

Thank you, Muffy, and everyone for your consideration.

36 comments:

  1. The better question is, "what did you do for your Ivy League institution?" I tried, and like to think, that I gave as at least as good as I got. This, after all, is why great institutions are great.

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  2. An excellent education which instilled in me a life long love of learning and imbued me with the ability to understand and appreciate many aspects of life. The advantage of social connections does exist, but in my opinion it's a distant second.

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    1. Well stated! This is my experience as well. I did not attend prestigious universities for promise of future gains, but rather for the experiences, people and perspectives they provided.

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    2. Coming from someone who used to read the World Book Encyclopedia when he came home for lunch during grade school, it didn’t take college to instill in me a life long love of learning. College did take it to another level. It exposed me to instructors who were focused on learning in a fashion which I had not before seen.

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  3. Few if any that one could not find at other well-regarded institutions. Lifelong friends (plus spouse and i attended the same university), most professors were excellent and accessible, and the name on the resume could have opened doors - no one has ever questioned the quality of the education. However, i could say that about each (non-ivy) university our three children attended.

    Today's employers and grad schools are sophisticated. High levels of academic achievement in a highly-ranked undergrad program or department carry a lot of weight, arguably more than the ivy reputation. With some exceptions (Penn/Wharton, for example), most ivies don't offer or excel at undergrad professional degrees like business or journalism. Also, there are many liberal arts majors like history and psychology where the departments at non-ivy colleges rank among the best in the US.

    For the most part, i think people get out of college what they put into it, wherever they go.

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  4. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University gave a speech in which he remarked that a three-foot shelf would be sufficient to hold enough books to give a liberal education equal to Harvard to anyone who would read them with devotion.

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    1. I have a set of those books published in the 1930s. Good reading during Covid. I plan to bribe my grandsons into reading them.

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  5. I like to remind people that the Ivy League is an athletic conference, and that the schools within the conference are very different from each other. Andrew makes some good points relating to these differences.

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  6. This modern day Tower of Babel too will fall.

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    1. I can't quite agree. While I believe the Ivies have gone off the rails in many ways, and deserve a sort of comeuppance, our corridors of power are still peopled with Ivy alums and for that reason a reckoning is unlikely to occur. The Supreme Court is just one example -- 8 of 9 justices are Harvard or Yale alumni.

      As for the general advantages of an Ivy League education, regrettably it's all about brand cachet. The economist Thomas Sowell is said to have remarked that the greatest value of a Harvard education was never having to be impressed by someone who went to Harvard.

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    2. Twenty years ago I was interviewing someone for a "foot in the door" position in DC. The young man that was being interviewed quite pompously let me know many times that he was a graduate of Yale even though his resume was sitting on my desk. Having had enough, I let him know that the person that we were looking to replace had been fired and had gone to Harvard. His demeaner changed immediately.

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    3. So impressed that an economist can have a sense of humor that I had to look up Thomas Sowell. I will be reading his books. Thanks

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    4. @Sartresky "The Supreme Court is just one example -- 8 of 9 justices are Harvard or Yale alumni."

      Case in point. Our elites lack cohesion. The Harvard of Quincy, Lawrence, Cabot and Lowell were of one accord. Devout, stern, God-fearing men. Todays elites have overproduced and worn away the hardiness and austerity which made Ivy institutions the lofty standard of education, civility and development. No one is interested in 'cold-roast', which is proving ruinous. A testament to these forefathers is that the likes of Harvard and Yale remain the defacto clearinghouse for national policy which today puts us on an incredibly precarious footing. These are no longer the First Family/Boston Brahim of old, but a hollow husk ridden rough shod by a motley crew of pretenders to the throne. The alumni have been co-opted and gagged as it is now a crime to speak against anything which challenges the mores of the state, of which the Ivy's are simply an extension, one in the same. So goes Harvard, so goes the nation and much of the Western world. As evidenced by our state of affairs we crossed the point of no return sometime ago. The postmortem to be written on these days will fill volumes in the decades to come. Godspeed.

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  7. I don't think they offer anything other than an expensive credential. Today, a college degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma 50 years ago, unfortunately. Today you can get a good, solid liberal arts education at any number of top-notch schools, for a fraction of the price.

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    1. Garrison HalibutMarch 8, 2022 at 9:17 AM

      I agree with what you say, except that I think you overestimate the quality of education occurring today in comparison with a half-century ago. Looking at the handiwork of recent Ivy graduates in academia and publishing, and having worked with a few of them, I'd say their verbal skills and level of general knowledge in areas like history and political theory would have gotten them a B-minus in the small-town public schools I attended in the South in the '70s. When I was at Oxford twenty years ago, one of my friends was a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa who'd been an exchange student at one of our elite boarding schools, and he told me that when he met kids from similar schools at tennis tournaments, none of them had ever heard of South Africa and couldn't figure out from the name of it where it was.

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  8. This comment isn’t an answer to the question, but I thought it might be of interest.

    Years ago, a relative of mine, who was a Brown graduate, decided he couldn’t stand to be cooped-up in an office all day long. Not for his restless young soul.

    So, with something else in mind, he traveled west to San Francisco (this was when the place was still livable) where he enrolled in a Junior College that offered a course to become a certified surveyor. This was exactly what he wanted – a job moving around outdoors in the sunshine.

    He told me this surveying course was harder than anything he’d ever encountered in the Ivy League. “At Brown, the professors take it for granted you’re smart – otherwise you wouldn’t be there - and so gave you the benefit of the doubt. No such leeway existed in the surveying course where the teachers assumed you were probably a half-idiot, and so were very strict and demanding.”

    I’ve also heard that the intellectual quality of many of today’s Ivy graduates is not what it was – probably due to quotas, and the mandatory softening of the curriculum.


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    1. A small and prestigious eastern liberal arts college, not an Ivy, has employed a family member since 1989. He is full professor, laboratory designer and supervisor, rotating department head, etc.. Recently he told me the quality of the writing skills of today’s students, “gets worse every year. We learned how to write in grammar school, and we took it for granted.”

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    2. Surveyors are damn important. You cannot make a mistake. I have used them for many years in the oilfield...onshore & offshore. Have no problem overpaying for the best.

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  9. A solid, grounded foundation, for all life had in store! Am so very thankful for it, and all the opportunites it has given me. Thank yiu!

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    1. So you are saying , this was all due to going to an IVY school ?

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  10. I graduated from Princeton in 1965. I remember that my public high school teachers were far better educators than any of the professors I had in the Princeton English Department. After all these years, what I remember most about Princeton was that I learned how to dress properly there. The way I dressed probably opened more doors from me than my Princeton degree.

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    1. @Anon
      I have no idea about the quality of instruction in Princeton's English department today, but I'm certain that if you were an undergrad there today, you wouldn't learn how to dress properly.

      Old Bostonian

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    2. Well, you probably wouldn't learn to dress like people did in 1965 at least.

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    3. @Blue Train
      I thank my lucky stars that I'm still able to dress as I did in 1965,
      i.e., that all the Ivy basics are still available almost 60 years on.

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  11. Our maternal grandparents were honest, hardworking, Northern Italian mountain folk when they emigrated to New England. One of their sons was was offered a scholarship at a prestigious local boarding school. It’s not St Paul’s, Andover, or Exeter. It’s the next level. And it maintains a reputation for academic rigor. Our grandfather asked our uncle, “how are you going to get there everyday?” He responded, “I don’t know Dad. I guess you’ll have to bring me.” “No, you get on the bus with your sisters and go to the high school like everyone else.” That uncle ended up with a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan. The cream always rises to the top.

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    1. Lord Mountbatten, after having his ship sunk during WWII, is reported to have said "the scum always rises to the top."

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    2. Lord Mountbatten would know the scum when he saw it. It was once remarked that if he ingested a “nail” it would exit “a corkscrew.”

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    3. Mountbatten was the one who claimed to have said it. The occasion was when he and his crew from his destroyer were bobbing around in the Mediterranean. It had been sunk by German dive bombers near Crete. I believe the expression goes back much further when the Duke of Wellington said his army was composed of the scum of the earth. The French army was conscripted and therefore brought together a fair sample of all classes. Our army, by the way, is currently an all-volunteer army.

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    4. Yes. We have had the all volunteer army now for many decades. It begets social complications.

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    5. I enlisted and my son enlisted. My father was drafted and my wife's father was drafted. My son-in-law enlisted in the Air Force. I was totally unaware of any social complications when I entered the service in 1965 (the base year), but how different people were from different parts of the country was eye-opening.

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    6. Social complications include certain USA regions contributing the largest numbers of armed forces personnel. Percentage wise very few enlist from high education, high income, metro areas and states.

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  12. Interpret the following anecdote as you wish. Many years ago when I first started working as a young professional, a co-worker arrived to the office wearing a Harvard tie. I attended a private university in the Boston metropolitan area, so I decided to strike up a friendly conversation in the hopes that we could exchange stories about our favorite Cambridge watering holes. My colleague proudly informed me that he graduated from a one-week executive course offered through the Harvard Extension School. He also displayed a "Harvard Alumni" bumper sticker on his car along with a "Harvard" license tag protector.

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  13. I enjoyed my college mostly for the athletic and social aspects, particularly the girls in the Houses and on the teams who were whip-smart, confident and thus attractive, at least to me. I was no scholar or particularly driven to 'network' for career purposes or ambitious for social connections. The first day of freshman year the grad student who lived in our dorm met with us and told us the following: "Don't assume you're all the smartest people the Earth has ever known. Yale and Stanford average SAT scores are higher than this class's. Don't assume you'll be the leader in everything you choose to do. Show some humility. And by the way, only a quarter of you will get laid while you're here." It was a great welcoming statement and funny as hell.

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  14. Ivy, Schmivy: High schools in the 1890s taught students more rigorously than the Ivy colleges. Who of us could pass a test like this even now: https://grandfather-economic-report.com/1895-test.htm

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  15. I am about to graduate from a master's degree program at an Ivy League school (I also hold a law degree from a mid-market non-Ivy, and a master's from a top-tier midwestern private school) My Ivy League master's program was comparable to my other graduate/professional school work. Nevertheless my Ivy credential, I have no doubt, was essential to top-shelf professional opportunities that I don't think would have come about in other schools. The faculty and students I came across at my Ivy League college are at least as bright, helpful and nice as anyone I've ever met in academe.

    On a more personal level, I can relate to the Thomas Sowell comment. There is a definitely different collegiate culture in the Ivy, not really found in other top institutions. Ivy League schools even today have a culture of having nothing to prove, something which is sorely lacking at other top schools of equal academic caliber (I've experienced this kind of 'Ivy deference' at places like Chicago, Virginia, Duke and Michigan).

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