Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 30 April 2024

 On Columbia University and Coach Handbags


(5 min)

A Palestinian flag raised above the encampment area at Columbia University in New York, April 25. Photo: Syndi Pilar/Zuma Press

Accessible luxury. That’s how the Federal Trade Commission described the market for Coach, Kate Spade and Michael Kors handbags in an antitrust lawsuit last week. It’s also an apt epithet for elite universities.

Consumers pay hefty prices for accessible luxury handbags not because they’re of superior quality but because their brands indicate status. The same is true of the Ivy League, which, like purveyors of expensive purses, uses selective discounting—financial aid—to make its product accessible to those who aspire to a higher status.

A Columbia degree is a lot like a Coach handbag in this regard. Would consumers and high-school students endure pocketbook pain if their once-desired products lost their prestige? Probably not.

It may be premature to call the anti-Israel protests and assaults on Jewish students on campuses across the country a tipping point. But scenes that recall “Lord of the Flies”—where the universities’ “best and brightest” are behaving like barbarians—are prompting employers, parents and high-school students to rethink the value of their degrees.

Elite universities benefit from a reinforcing feedback loop. The cream of the high-school crop aspire to attend because they expect a degree will earn them entry into the highest professional and social echelons. An education from Columbia is no better than one from many flagship state colleges such as the University of South Carolina in Columbia. But the Ivy League’s brand is held in high esteem by employers.

Parents pay big bucks to send their kids to these colleges because they think they will be surrounded by other smart and sophisticated students. Prestigious employers are more likely to hire grads from such universities, who they assume are intelligent and conscientious.

study last fall by Harvard and Brown professors found that attending an elite college—an Ivy League school, the University of Chicago, Duke, Stanford or MIT—instead of a selective public university increased a student’s likelihood of reaching the top 1% of the earnings distribution by 60%. It also nearly tripled his odds of working at a prestigious firm.

Graduates of these elite colleges make up nearly half of Rhodes Scholars, 26.1% of journalists at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and 71.4% of Supreme Court justices appointed since 1967. Buying a college degree for its brand has historically paid off for students. The payoff will shrink if employers think less of the brand.

Elite colleges are supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff in their application process. They are, however, increasingly selecting students for traits that many employers don’t want, such as a passion for progressive activism.

Stanford University in 2017 admitted Ziad Ahmed, who in response to the application prompt “What matters to you, and why?” wrote “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. “Everyone who reviewed your application was inspired by your passion, determination, accomplishments and heart,” the university’s acceptance letter read. “You are, quite simply, a fantastic match with Stanford.” Mr. Ahmed decided Yale was a better match for him.

Elite colleges also may have devalued their degrees in the eyes of employers during the pandemic when they made submitting SAT and ACT scores optional. This had the effect of lowering admissions standards, resulting in the enrollment of less academically qualified students. A recent study by Brown and Dartmouth professors found that the academic performance of college students at elite universities who didn’t submit standardized test scores was equivalent to those who scored 1307 on the SAT—more than 200 points lower than the average score at most Ivy Leagues.

Professors at Dartmouth also found that “under a test-optional policy, about 31% of enrolled students have not submitted a score, and most of the missing mass of the distribution is at a score of 1450 and below.” This suggests that the test-score ranges colleges report are inflated, and that their students’ performance has fallen in recent years.

Dartmouth and some other Ivy League schools recently abandoned their test-optional policies after finding that they harmed less-affluent students whom admissions officers rated lower on fuzzier “personal” attributes. But might test-optional policies also have resulted in admitting more of the ignorant activists now marching for the destruction of Israel?

When Americans picture Ivy League students, they don’t see savants. In many cases, they imagine sloths, bigots and bullies. Don’t be surprised if many parents no longer are willing to spend a small fortune for their children to attend school with know-nothings—or if employers think twice about hiring Ivy League alumni.

I graduated from Stanford in 2009, before young leftists turned belligerent and censorious en masse. While I don’t regret attending, I wonder whether I’d make the same choice today. Being in the ideological minority can toughen your skin, but today’s campus bullies can also beat students down. Is the abuse worth it?

Remember: A Coach handbag is a status symbol only if people think it is. The same is true for a Columbia degree.

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Appeared in the April 29, 2024, print edition as 'On Columbia University and Coach Handbags'.

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