I Hate the Ivy League

I dropped my eldest son off at college on Friday, which was bittersweet.

Lucky for him, he is focused and passionate in a way I could not have imagined when I was his age.  He’s found his way to a small, specialized school that is uniquely suited to his talents, and I’m hoping that it turns out to be the perfect place for him.

On the drive there and back, my wife and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s 9-podcast compilation, “I Hate the Ivy League.”

The thesis is that the U.S. higher ed system is failing miserably at being the great equalizer in a country that calls itself it is a meritocracy. Instead of a higher-ed system that is evolving towards more access for more students for better results, we instead have one that is driving inexorably towards exorbitantly-priced exclusivity…a hyper-capitalist version of education.

I don’t know which episode I liked the best.

It could be the one where Justice Antonin Scalia boasts that he only considers Supreme Court Clerk candidates from the T14 (“top 14”) U.S. law schools, and then goes on to say that the single best Clerk he ever had went to none of those schools. And he fails to see the irony in that.

I also liked the one where Gladwell takes on Stanford’s president and almost blows a gasket explaining why a $400 million gift to a college with a multi-billion dollar endowment is just plain wrong.

But probably the best of all was the one that talks about the U.S. News and World Report college ranking system. While I knew it was flawed, I never fully appreciated how each and every element that drives up college ranking is correlated with exclusion, wealth, and privilege.

I listened from the edge of my seat to Gladwell’s exposition on what it would take for Dillard, an historically black college and university (HBCU) in Louisiana, to climb the US News and World Report rankings: admit fewer students with Pell grants, fewer students who are first-time college-goers, recruit more rich white students, etc. etc. etc. (Oh, and if you’re wondering which college, Harvard or Dillard, graduated more Black physics majors last year, it’s not even close: Dillard wins in a landslide.)

This all got me thinking, again, about the power of data to shape (or mis-shape) a system. While the U.S. News rankings are not the only cause of the perversion of higher education in the U.S., they are a major catalyst that reinforces and accelerates a fundamentally flawed status quo.

I’m sure we can all think of other areas where bad or nonexistent data are either accelerating us towards a bad outcome or holding us back from facing the real, tough questions.

If you’re looking for better data, real data, data from the source, let’s talk.

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