In whence I continue to rant about David Brooks and higher education

As the always lovely Michaela pointed out on my Facebook, David Brooks has a new blog on the New York Times. Oh boy! Now there are more opportunities to ramble on my own blog.

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.

Location matters.

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.

3 responses to “In whence I continue to rant about David Brooks and higher education

  1. I think you’re unduly criticizing Brooks here—I doubt he’s really saying that the cultural differences between ASU and Harvard (or UT and Rice) are irrelevant. Instead, all it looks like he’s saying is that the academic differences are not particularly great (especially if you’re looking at people who are in the honors program at ASU), college rankings are rather arbitrary (particularly if you’re looking at more than just one factor), and your chances of succeeding in life (at least financially) won’t change that much if you decide to skip the Harvard tuition and enroll in ASU’s honors program. This really isn’t anything that hasn’t been said before and, if anything, he’s just jumping on the same bandwagon as most everyone else. It might have been better if he had compared two schools of a similar type (maybe ASU vs. Michigan), but he flat out states that culture is important.

    I think Tim Burke really puts it best here:

    “I sometimes join a faculty panel to talk to prospective Swarthmore applicants, and one of the first things that I say is that a college applicant and family can only have strong control over a few really basic dimensions of the choice in front of them. You can control the cost of tuition and board by choosing between public and private, near your family or far-away. You can choose between large and small. You can choose between institutions with unusual curricular designs (St. John’s, Hampshire, Bob Jones, the U.S. Military Academy) or institutions that are more or less variations on a common approach. An applicant and family can make some rough judgments about selectivity, quality, and resources using rankings systems. An applicant can decide if there’s a region or area of the country they really like or dislike.

    “Beyond that, if (for example) an applicant had decided that they wanted small colleges in the Northeast with a fairly standard curricular philosophy near the top of the selectivity hierarchy, there’s a good argument that they should just write out all the names on slips of paper, put them in a Hogwart’s hat, and choose six to apply to. The features that will really change your life or matter to you once those major decisions are made are almost impossible to predict: the friends you’ll make or lose, the people you’ll love or break up with, the professors you’ll connect to or be frustrated by, the courses that will excite or bore you, the majors that will grab or repel you, the professional connections you’ll make or wish you had, the institutional culture that will satisfy or disgust you.”

    Would my life have been different had I gone to Wyoming instead of Rice? Yes, but there’s still quite a lot of fungibility involved. I still would have gotten involved in playing jazz in some fashion, maybe hung out with the theater geeks. I’d still have taken hard courses, gotten a bit burned out because I was IMing at obscene hours of the morning instead of getting some sleep, and possibly even have gone on the same study abroad program. I’d not have had the experiences of the Ultimate Secret Society of Russians or Practical Self-Defense, but maybe I would’ve had my own punk band and started rock climbing. Ultimately we have some basic needs to satisfy, and we’ll make do with whatever is available or create something on our own.

    Moreover, what attracts us to a particular college may not in the end be worth that much. I came to Rice excited about the college system, I left feeling rather apathetic about the whole affair (which I note was something you <a href=””felt as well). On the other hand, I discovered Valhalla (and I still miss it so). I personally think it’s a fool’s errand to look for a “perfect fit” for a college, since there are far too many unknowns involved and it just sets us up for disappointment whenever things go wrong. Rice was overall a good fit for me, and I think that that is the crucial threshold: good, not perfect.

    I think your comment about WashU kind of encapsulates this issue. I’m sorry your friend was a bit disappointed with his experience there, but to provide a counter-example my girlfriend went there and had an excellent time. She spent a lot of time with people in her major (art) and related fields (theater), and friends of hers got involved in the co-ops. It’s different from our college system, but the ultimate need for social cohesion is still satisfied. And as a final note, the average class size at WashU is 14, which is about the same as Rice’s.

    Also, if the educated populace is all planning on graduate school, God help us all.

    • I’ll admit that I stretched my argument/rant a bit far out of a sheer desire to comment on Brooks’ first blog entry. I still think it is somewhat hypocritical for him to say that we should not rely on objective studies to make social decisions, and then rely on one to come to the conclusion that undergrad experience doesn’t result in great difference in lifelong earning.

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