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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Tracewell

Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder and Jordache Jeans

Yes, I am dating myself, but owning a pair of Jordache jeans in the 80s was the height of coolness and luxury. Luckily (or not?!) the 80s are back in fashion so you can follow my analogy as I couple this obsession with name-brand clothing to that fixation folks have with elite colleges — the Ivy Leagues, the Stanfords, the USCs of the world. Chic jeans would have fit me great in 1988 — that’s what you wore when you couldn’t afford Jordache — and it’s just like some of our current graduates who turn up their noses at many strong schools that are good academic and financial fits. In the education world, Malcolm Gladwell calls this Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder (EICD) and he identifies three main concepts we can deconstruct: 1) the overstated significance of elite colleges, 2) Relative Deprivation Theory, and 3) actual outcomes. These judgments may be harder to peel off than my 1980s skin-tight Jordache jeans, but let's try.

The Overstated Significance of Elite Colleges

First, where does the aura of “eliteness” come from and why are people obsessed with it? How do you even land on the idea that Stanford is better than Reed College? I’m using an actual example I encountered this week! My friend who is a college counselor in California just shared that his student had been given a full-ride scholarship to Reed College but upon acceptance to Stanford University she chose Stanford (where she didn’t get a good financial aid package). She would rather pay a quarter-million dollars in tuition because “it’s Stanford” (her words) than stop and think about what her educational experience would be like at each school and how the programs and cultures would fit her. This name-brand fixation, or EICD, also extends to the shunning of the local community college by many college-bound kids who view it as a lower-level or last-ditch option, despite the many positive features such as cost, location, academic flexibility, and school-life balance. On a grander scale, it’s sobering to stop and think about the origins of the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, which was rooted in this obsession with prestige, and drove wealthy parents to fraudulently gain their children admissions into elite institutions.

The college rankings definitely feed the frenzy of “eliteness” and we can thank the U.S. New & World Report for this madness. Guess what? College rankings are a joke. That’s the actual title of an article in the New York Times by Frank Bruni who pulls back the curtain on the supposed data and metrics that drive the college rankings system. A big factor in a college's ranking is how highly leaders of other colleges rated it, just one example of an easily manipulated data point. Much of it is pure marketing (the same way designer jeans get hyped), so please look beyond the rankings and explore what matters to YOU.

Rankings can be a starting point, but explore how key areas that are important to you stack up against your college list.

Rankings can be a starting point, but explore how key areas that are important to you stack up against your college list: what majors are offered and how strong are they, is location important to you, what is the average class size, is the college known to give generous financial aid, what kinds of academic or social/emotional supports are available, are there interest groups on campus that would give you a sense of belonging, what is the job placement rate or salary potential for your field of study, and on and on. Where you go is not who you’ll be, and once again Frank Bruni writes the book on how the name recognition of your college is not what’s important, it’s what you brought to the table and what effort you put forth. A better list of colleges to check out would be Colleges That Change Lives, a group that's focused on individual student needs and how they might fit with the mission and culture of a particular college.

Relative Deprivation Theory

The inflated sense of prestige over elite colleges is as real as how I believed I’d finally arrived in the popular club the day I pulled on my first pair of coveted Jordache jeans, which leads to the second point, something Malcolm Gladwell calls Relative Deprivation Theory. Think of this fancy phrase as Big Fish—Little Pond. Basically, we measure ourselves against the people who surround us and are closest to us. In a big pond (an elite college) it’s easy to get lost and not feel as smart and capable as you would if you were the big fish in a small pond. A student can go from being a top student at an average high school to a struggling student at an elite college, and soon lose confidence and motivation. Even Harvard and Stanford have a bottom 10%. Malcolm Gladwell famously says you shouldn’t go to the best college you get into for this reason. There is a lot of merit to his argument, but I’m not advocating that you lower yourself to an easier standard. Again, it’s all about the right fit! (Yes, I thought my Jordache jeans would gain me instant entry into a new social class, but honestly, all I had were the jeans. I actually felt worse about myself!)

The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities. — Malcolm Gladwell

To give balance to the Relative Deprivation Theory, there are certainly times that it’s healthy to stretch yourself, for the right reasons. I have a student who walked away from a full-ride scholarship here in Oregon to attend an elite east coast university where she’d have to take on some moderate student loans. She was jettisoned from a working-class family in a small blue-collar community where she was the top in her class, to a college where everywhere she turned were excessively wealthy prep-school kids who were also at the top of their elite high schools. It took her a year of deep struggle to acclimate, but she did. She rose to the challenge, put in the hard work, and is excelling in both academics and leadership. Sometimes you take the risk for the right reason and it works; for her, she was longing to find her tribe, other young people who were as academically focused and as nerdy as her, and she finally found them. The networking she’s begun to establish there is already paying off. For example, she’ll spend the summer as a forest ecology research intern in a program led by Cornell University, an opportunity she earned in large part because of where she went to school.

College Outcomes

Finally, the actual outcomes: you hopefully graduate from college and you have gainful employment? Did the elite institution result in a higher salary and increased job happiness? Malcolm Gladwell weighs in on this debate in his book, David and Goliath, and he would offer a resounding no. His research found that students who didn’t go to the most selective universities on their list but instead enrolled in perhaps their third most elite school had a higher chance of outperforming their peers. This is because now the students have a greater likelihood of graduating in the top tier of their class which leads to more likelihood of a successful career — regardless of the rank of the school. On the other hand, landing in the bottom half of your class, even at a prestigious university, you have a less likely chance of success and happiness in your future career. Gladwell argues that the confidence students gained from experiencing more success at the lesser-known college and feeling good about themselves propel them to stay motivated and achievement-oriented.

Outcomes are also driven by what you study and where. Looking at an example close to home, Oregon Tech, which is not considered an elite institution, makes a great case. Graduates of Oregon Tech who major in Renewable Energy will earn starting salaries of $65,000 annually. Graduates of Stanford University who major in Biology will earn starting salaries of $36,000 annually.

There's no significant earnings difference between engineering graduates from selective and less-selective colleges, and only a marginally significant difference between selective and midtier colleges. — Wall Street Journal

Keep in mind that there is always balance to everything. Some studies show that half of the students from elite universities will graduate demoralized and broke, while other researchers find that for certain degrees such as business or other liberal arts majors, the prestigious diploma will give you a salary edge.

Beware of the college admissions mania — this is the key takeaway.

Put some thought and intention into your reasons for selecting your chosen university, beyond the name-brand and marketing. My Jordache jeans were sort of constricting and way beyond my 80s budget and I may have been wise to opt for the comfort of the less prestigious Chic brand if only I had understood that I was simply falling prey to Designer Jeans Cognitive Disorder. ;)

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