In his first blog entry, Brooks talks about distinguishing between universities, specifically those ranked best and those not perhaps the best. He claims that on personal experience, he cannot tell the difference between undergrads from difference universities or colleges:
I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and I’m not sure these distinctions have any meaning. If you put me in a room with 25 students for an hour, I couldn’t tell if they were from Harvard or Arizona State. There are smart students all over.
No doubt there are smart students all over, but if David Brooks can’t tell the difference between students from different schools, he is asking the wrong questions. If you had Rice students and University of Houston students in a room, I could tell the difference with one question: What college do you belong to?
You see, some schools can be very different from others.
But Brooks claims there is little difference between schools, relying largely on a study that demonstrates that lifelong earning has little to do with undergraduate education:
Recently Stacy Dale and Alan Kreuger came out with a study suggesting that the college you attend makes little difference when it comes to how much money you’ll earn. A self-confident student who gets a 1400 on her SATs will have the same income whether she goes to a super top university or merely a good one.
First of all, I question the accuracy and long-range meaning of the study Brooks references. Perhaps long term earning may be different, but ending up at a top school may result in a more enjoyable or prestigious job, even if the pay is the same. But to Brooks, pay seems to be what matters.
Either way, judging by what Brooks says, students and parents really shouldn’t split hairs about school rankings, because of what studies say. How ironic that David Brooks relies upon a study to make his point, when he goes on the next day to criticize not just policymaking based on studies, but ignoring more subtle life qualities that cannot be measured by income:
But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.
Indeed, let’s look at the study in his blog and ignore everything else. Except for when we shouldn’t. And let’s use income to determine that all schools have equal value, except for when we should use less tangible qualities. Which one is it?
But perhaps if Brooks were actually listening to university students (he does spend so much time on campuses) he would learn that location really does matter. The experience at Rice’s college system is different than living at the huge University of Texas.
I am reminded of a friend who planned on attending Rice, with an intent of focusing on arts. I warned her that Rice’s arts program, while impressive in its own way, was not a grand program and is basically based out of a trailer. She dismissed my claims. However, two years and one Playboy appearance later (Rice has a long history of involvement with that magazine), she transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design. Rice was not the right place for her. Location matters.
Or, for a more subtle difference, another friend was deciding between Rice and University of Washington at St. Louis. WashU had offered him more money than Rice, and thus chose that school. Given the close rankings between the two schools, certainly Brooks would support going for more money. But comparing notes, he expressed a certain regret not having gone to Rice. After all, students attended Rice because they wanted to: they wanted the small classes, college system, and general sense of unique community that didn’t exist at WashU.
My anecdotes are not scientific study, but according to Brooks we should not rely on merely quantifiable characteristics, so let’s just roll from here.
After all, there is a difference between Harvard and Arizona State, and if Brooks actually talked to students he would be able to discern it. Schools have their own focused agendas, specified academic focuses, and general personalities. A student’s sense of self and attitude towards the world can be shaped by going to one school over another.
Generally, students choose their own schools to a certain extent. This ensures, somewhat, that students end up where they want to be. They find schools that are perfect fits for them. But if we go by Brooks’ standard that it doesn’t matter, schools may find students who don’t fit well on campus, and may be harmed in the long run.
As Brooks himself says:
Colleges are distinguished most importantly by their cultures and personalities, not by anything that can be ranked by neat status rules.
I agree. But what is the point if people like Brooks cannot tell the difference between students?
Anyways, I’m rambling now. But in the end, location is important, and personalities are important. For undergrad. But people aren’t getting their long-term out of undergrad, they’re getting them from graduate schools. Brooks should take another look there and then claim how much ranking doesn’t matter.