Why College Prestige Matters and Why It Shouldn't

For the wealthy, college admissions have become an ever-escalating arms race.

Posted Jan 25, 2021

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"My university opened doors that my high school self could never have imagined."
Source: Haveseen/Shutterstock

Three years after graduating from my alma mater, I found myself reliving the rat race of college admission, but this time, I was watching from the interviewer's perspective. In thirty minutes, I had to figure out whether my seventeen- and eighteen-year-old interviewees could become future graduates that my college would be proud to claim as its own.

These teenagers were undoubtedly talented—concertmasters, club presidents, varsity team captains, and champions of various extracurricular activities. But I remembered the applicants not by their accomplishments, but by how they carried themselves during the interview. Some impressed me with their introspection, eloquence, and self-assurance; others I associated with their nervousness. They fidgeted with their coffee cups, failed to meet my gaze, or struggled to express themselves.

I wanted to comfort these jittery applicants by letting them know that everything would be okay. Still, I held back because I didn’t know whether that was entirely true. Of course, the college they attended wouldn’t define these applicants' success; only they could. But coming from a well-regarded college could certainly give these students a leg up. As a first-generation immigrant and a first-generation college graduate, my university opened doors that my high school self could have never imagined.

For instance, if I had attended my state school, would I have been awarded a research internship and a year-long fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, despite my then-lackluster biology grades? Would I have nabbed a nonfiction book deal as a college senior? Probably not.

Prestige begets prestige. My classmates also benefited from the opportunities provided by our alma mater. Consulting companies and financial firms actively recruited students through our career center. Our college also had various scholarships for students to fund their passion projects and internships. Successful alumni lent their advice and support to help underclassmen who were decades their junior. Now, only seven years after graduation, my former classmates include countless lawyers, physicians, engineers, consultants, investment bankers, writers, artists, academics, multiple Olympians, an Emmy Award-winning reporter, and more.

Many graduates from prestigious colleges come from privileged backgrounds and continue to benefit from the perks of their institutional affiliations. This may be why that the average Ivy League graduate earns more than twice as much as the typical college graduate ten years after matriculation, according to a 2015 article published in the Washington Post. The result is also evident in the disproportionate number of Fortune 500 CEOs, politicians, and other changemakers hailing from highly-selective institutions.

In fact, in a rare break, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris became the first president-vice president pair without an Ivy League degree since Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.  Moreover, Amy Coney Barrett, former President Donald Trump's last Supreme Court nominee, is the only current justice without a Harvard or Yale law degree.

Some (perhaps the graduates themselves) may argue that the large pay gap reflects the continuous drive and hard work enabling students of prestigious institutions to be admitted in the first place. The problem with this reasoning is that it neglects the role of parental wealth in success in high school and college admissions. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, at selective colleges, "more students come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than the bottom half of the income distribution," and yet low-income students at these institutions have "nearly the same odds of reaching the top fifth of the income distribution as their peers from higher-income families."

For the well-to-do, elite college admissions have become an ever-escalating arms race for interesting extra-curricular activities. Those who have the means to do so can create and fund opportunities to help them stick out in the minds of the admissions committee. In the most extreme cases, I've seen parents utilize their networks to create impressive-sounding internships for their children, add their sons and daughters as co-authors in complex research papers, and help their kids set up companies or charities soliciting thousands of dollars in donations from wealthy family friends. In all, the nature of college admissions and the perks associated with an elite education make these institutions an incubation chamber for amplifying economic inequality.

Given the disparate benefits of attending a prestigious institution, then, at the very least, admissions should be more fair and equitable. This would require getting rid of legacy admissions—institutional preference given to applicants on the basis of family relations—and opening up more spots per class. However, neither is realistic. In the United States, alumni make up a vital source of donations, and many donors give with the hope that their children will be looked upon favorably when they apply for colleges. Also, adding more seats per class will increase the acceptance rate, which, in many college rankings, is inversely associated with perceived prestige.

The most realistic solution to bolster equity in higher education lies upon deliberate changes in how applicants are assessed. For one, admissions offices can place a greater weight on “distance traveled”—the relative difference between a student's starting point and the progress they have made—instead of the absolute value of an applicant's achievements. To whom much is given, much more should be expected. Doing so will select the students who made—and will continue to make—the most of their opportunities.

Another, more modest means of increasing equity would be for alumni of prestigious institutions to use their own privilege to level the playing field. I love my alma mater, and I also know that my affiliations grant me more credibility and opportunities than others with similar or even greater aptitude. Therefore, at this point in my career, I've sought to utilize my resources for others by mentoring pre-medical students from underserved backgrounds. As a first-generation college graduate, to give back means not pulling the ladder up behind me; instead, it means using my resources to add a few rungs below so that others may ascend.