Elite Universities Aren’t About Learning?

Ross Douthat explains today that “elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom.”  He is far from the first to make this assertion, and indeed it seems to be the common wisdom, at least in some circles.

Now, when Douthat says “elite universities,” he makes it clear in the article that he primarily means Ivy League universities.  I did not attend an Ivy League university, but I did attend Williams College, which is, I assert, in the same circle of elite high-end East Coast colleges.  And I think that the benefits I got from it were principally educational and signaling-related.

While I do still have a fair number of friends from my college days, I don’t think that I’ve accrued any significant social advantage through those friends.  I’ve never gotten a job either through a Williams alumnus hiring me, nor even through a tip from another alumnus.  I do absolutely think that having an elite college degree has helped me take and retain a position in high-status jobs, but through the more traditional means of “making people think I’m smart,” and much less because those people and I are in an old boys network.

I may be something of an outlier.  I’ve helped a couple of Williams friends get jobs themselves, so I do see the connection network in action.  But my understanding is that many more people I know have not directly benefited from connections than have.

What’s going on here?  Why is my understanding so different from Douthat’s?  Am I just a personal outlier?  Is my field (software engineering) less prone to the old boys network than others?  Did my decision to move 3,000 miles from my alma mater diminish the value of that alma mater to me?  Or are Ivy Leagues much more about connections than other elite universities?

Or are people just overestimating the importance of connections for the typical elite university graduate?

I honestly don’t know.


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