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Why Would Anyone Go to an Elite College?

Are fancy-schmancy schools like the one where I teach worth it? A new discussion at The New York Times says NO!  According to the Times,

The key to success in college and beyond has more to do with what students do with their time during college than where they choose to attend. A long-term study of 6,335 college graduates published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that graduating from a college where entering students have higher SAT scores—one marker of elite collegesdidn’t pay off in higher post-graduation income. Researchers found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn’t attend them — either because of rejection or by their own choiceare more likely to earn high incomes later than students who actually attended elite schools.

So if clawing and pushing your way into an elite school doesn’t pay off, why do we do it? What causes the hysteria that makes schools like Middlebury so sought after that we reject 80 percent of the more than 7,000 students who apply?  Are the people who come here just not rational economic actors?  Does that mythical homo economicus, who makes choices about the best bang for his or buck, just not bother with the likes of us and instead we are left with homo ineconomicus, a completely irrational economic actor?  I think the answer is about capital, but not of the economic kind.

As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu mapped out for us, class is never just about money. We gain prestige in our cultures not just or even necessarily primarily through economic capital.  That’s why we feel disdain for the noveau riche since despite their high levels of economic capital, they often have low levels of educational, social, and cultural capital.

In other words, social power is expressed not just in how much we can buy, but what we buy, where we buy it, and who else is buying it.  It is this sort of capital—the capital that makes it possible to effortlessly float through a museum, a trendy restaurant, or a party of the uber rich—that can give us the ability to maneuver through the world like a “fish in water” (i.e. Bourdieu’s term for how people for whom the social rules of the game are written feel).  Those who make a lot of money, but have not gained the sort of educational, social, and cultural capital that is available at elite colleges often feel like a fish out of water, despite all their fancy-schmancy cars and homes.

Perhaps the best way to think about the difference between attending an elite school and going to a college that is less prestigious is to consider these two videos.  The first, “Tea Partay,” is an ad for a Smirnoff alcoholic beverage that could be made with students from a school like Middlebury.  The second, 50 Cent’s “I Get Money” is the boast of someone who has high levels of economic capital, but surely feels like a fish out of water at his mansion in Farmington, CT.

It is the microskirmishes over “taste,” especially in conditions of consumer capitalism, that determine our prestige, not the size of our bank accounts—or at least not the size of our bank accounts alone.  And what elite colleges offer is a lot of prestige, not just in the name on the degree, but in the people you know, the clothes you wear, the places you go. This is what Bourdieu would call educational,  social, and cultural capital.

In other words, the next time you see an article saying it doesn’t matter where you go to school because some of the richest people in the world either didn’t go to college or went to a not terribly prestigious school, ask yourself if social power is to be measured in bank accounts alone.

Maybe once we have a more complex understanding of power we can actually ask ourselves the far more important question: Is the transmission of high levels of various capital at elite institutions at its core anti-democratic? But if we naively assume that the college we attended doesn’t matter, we can never begin to understand why so many of us want to go to an elite college, despite the lack of direct correlation with future earnings.

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