We need more honest talk about prestige and social capital

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Some people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid dropping the H-bomb. (This’ll be a short and less-than-grand post because, well, I’m busy)

Let me recreate a conversation I’ve heard (or been involved in) dozens of times over the years.

“So, where did you go to college?”

“Boston.”

“You went to Boston College? Or BU?”

“Well, I went to college near Boston.”

“Northeastern? Tufts? MIT?”

“No, though those are great schools.”

“So where’d you go?”

[slightly mumbles] “Harvard”

I understand this, and I sympathize with this response. There’s a lot of subtext to unpack in this dynamic, and I’m not writing this to unpack all of that. Also, I’d be the worst person to do it. I mean, I’ve never even made it to Boston personally, so my direct knowledge of the place is about as weak as it gets.

What I do know that Harvard’s endowment is so huge, they have about $2 million in the bank for every enrolled student. When you’re coming from an environment swimming in that kind of wealth, talking about the prestige is just so uncouth.

When people find out that you went to Harvard, folks can jump to false conclusions. If you look at the profile of who they admit, then you can put a probability value on those assumptions, all of which are below 100%. Regardless, graduating from Harvard  — or any other highly prestigious college — is a huge leg up. There’s no denying that a ton of social capital is acquired through the process. Independent of achievement, skills, or intellect, or educational quality, just the name of the institution confers an advantage.

This is both at once entirely obvious, and pretty much incontrovertible in the face of the evidence. But it’s also something that many people are so darn afraid to talk about openly.

Some schools have a lot more prestige than others. Their names open doors. And converse is that the name of others schools will slam those same doors shut.

This is a reality that everybody knows. That includes “conservatives” who claim to believe in a pure meritocracy, because deep down, they must recognize that extraordinarily capable people who attend low-prestige institutions get unfairly downgraded, and that some trust-fund legacies are unfairly upgraded. The reason that low-income and certain ethnic groups are underrepresented in high-prestige institutions is independent of their smarts and talents. If that’s true — that coming from these places is not an indicator of talent — then why does the name of these places confer such an advantage?

I think it’s because people know this, but refuse to talk about it.

In general, people avoid talking about the extreme privilege that associated with prestige. Perhaps to an even greater degree, people avoid directly talking about the reality for students and faculty in low-prestige institutions.

When someone leaves my university and is absolutely agog at how our students are even more amazing than they anticipated, do they go back to their their university and talk about how their students are not any more meritorious than the students at my low-prestige university? Do they remember this when they’re admitting grad students? When they are sending their own grad students and postdocs on the faculty job market?

So there, I said it. I work in a low-prestige institution. I have no shame about this, and if I have an excess of pride, it’s because this is to communicate my experience with the high level of quality and talent in our students.

Now what we need are people who enjoy the benefits of high-prestige institutions to get comfortable with publicly recognizing that the benefits they enjoy are not the result of a meritocracy. I’m not asking y’all to take yourselves down a notch, per se, but instead, to make a point to routinely and publicly recognize the merit of people and programs in low-prestige institutions. And to think of us as peers, and our students as worthy as your students.

This is required to remove the stigma of being associated with low-prestige institutions. Because, like it or not, this is where the diversity that you’re trying to recruit is coming from. The sooner you can think of students from these institutions as worthy of your prestigious institutions, the sooner you’ll have the inclusion that’s preventing you from having the diversity that’s all up in your mission statement.

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