Every year around April 1st we get a wave of news coverage about college admissions. Even though research has not (yet) shown that attending an elite school means you’ll make more money, lots of other studies suggest that it does matter. Often the ways it matters are difficult to measure, but they include social networks and access to resources, information, and opportunities.
This year three much talked about op-eds were published within a day of one another. First there was the New York Times piece by Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Ivy League was Another Planet.” Then the next day brought Suzy Lee Weiss’ “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me: If only I had a tiger mom or started a fake charity)” and Susan Patton’s letter in The Daily Princetonian, “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.” The Weiss and Patton pieces have been extremely polarizing (if you haven’t read them, click through and you’ll immediately see why). The Watkins piece has a much more measured, even sociological bent to it, making a connection between information (and lack thereof) about the Ivy League to an abundance of information about the military option in poor American communities.
I haven’t seen anyone connect these three pieces, but to me they all address what sociologists call cultural capital. Weiss and Patton– who I kind of see as same sides of a generational coin– know that attending an Ivy brings you a particular type of cultural capital; it’s why Weiss wanted to attend one and why Patton says Ivy Leaguers should practice assortative mating (a college classmate, Ross Douthat [who incidentally also married a fellow ’02er like I did] wrote about this exceptionally well in the the Times). Now both women seem uncomfortably and unlikelably elitist (Patton claims her ex-husband went to a no-name college and in an interesting Today Show appearance Weiss seems to put down Penn State) but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a kernel of truth in what they are saying. Watkins’ piece is evidence of that. Attending an Ivy means knowing enough to get there, and getting access to lots of other information once you are “in.”
Of course, that’s not always without complications: It can also mean a permanent inferiority complex. This is spoken by an outsider who has since managed to become an insider, albeit while trying to retain an outsider’s perspective. I actually write about this at the beginning of my forthcoming book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, as so much of the focus of many parents I met is how their elementary school-age kids will get to an elite college someday (oh, have I mentioned you can now pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the University of California Press’ website?!).
Watkins, a published author and professor, doesn’t seem caught up in an inferiority complex. Weiss’ self-deprecating humor may yet give her an out and she can enjoy her infamy. I suppose there’s still hope for them that they can marry Patton’s youngest son, since in Patton’s world Princeton men can marry “down”… Although I’m guessing both young women have other foci and aren’t just focused on getting married to an Ivy Leaguer. And if they are, I suppose there’s always graduate school.