You’re an intelligent person, right? You did well in high school so it’s time to venture off into the big, bad world. What better place to start than a prestigious university?
The traditional school of thought sees attending university as placing you on a better standing than the average person, with the lecturers teaching specialised knowledge and all. At first glance, the evidence even suggests that graduates from ‘elite’ universities like Wits and UCT earn substantially more than those who attend their lesser counterparts..
With this kind of evidence, who wouldn’t want to go to the more prestigious universities? It’s even a meal ticket out of poverty and into the middle-class for some.
But what if attending university is just an elaborate sorting system and people who attend university are already a certain kind of way. How much of an individual’s personal traits account for how well they perform after graduation? Could the university they attend be of little importance?
This is what American economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale wanted to find out. In their 2002 study of American universities and their students, they aimed to uncover what effect university exclusivity had on future earnings of graduates who had chosen to go to a ‘lessor’ university but had been accepted into a prestigious one.
In laymans terms, they were not comparing students who attended different universities because of their aptitudes but were rather comparing students who had similar aptitudes but attended different universities. The results are quite surprising.
Krueger and Dale found that in the US that if Jerome was accepted into an Ivy League institution but instead chose to attend a state university, there wasn’t a substantial difference in earnings between him and Tom who had chosen to attend the Ivy League school.
There will always be exceptions to the rule but for the majority of graduates this is what they found. This goes against the conventional wisdom and puts forward the idea that universities take in a certain kind of person, not that it moulds you a certain way.
Some of you may say this is an American study and has no legs to stand on in a South African context. That isn’t necessarily true because of the striking similarities between the Ivy League rankings in the U.S. and the previously white universities in South Africa. Many potential students and employers alike place a great deal of importance to which university one attends.
This begs then the question as to why universities are so elitist in the first place?
Firstly, because government subsidises universities with a cut of the GDP, universities are incentivised to prioritise research which improves their prestige and global ranking which leads to government increasing their funding. This is why you’ll find a positive correlation between research rankings of universities and the overall prestige a university is understood to have.
This becomes problematic for students because they look to go to university to get qualifications that impress potential employers and employers themselves are interested in students that went to prestigious universities. The number of graduates they produce is not of great importance to universities because the value of a degree is dependent on the number of graduates it produces. By encouraging scarcity, the elite university is able to drive the demand of their graduates thus making higher education a commodity.
So what is the easiest way to limit the amount of new graduates? High fees.
By hiking up the fees to study at these exclusive institutions, universities benefit as they will have more money to fund research while also limiting the number of graduates entering the job market and have no incentive to fund the poor .
Think about it like this. If you had a commodity people wanted in abundance, you would limit the number of people who have access to it so that you could raise the price to whatever level you wanted to. There would still be demand for it because they benefit from having it because a lot of people have no access to it. Win-win.
Another interesting point that Krueger and Dales's study implies is that the performance of students and their future success is determined at the time of their admission into university.
What this means is that to ensure that students are to prosper in university and beyond, elite universities need to admit the “correct kind of student”. It isn’t hard to distinguish the ‘correct kind of student’ in South Africa, with the injustices of apartheid and structural inequalities and privileges still at play.
We need to understand that by success we aren’t just talking about living a simple, middle-class life. We are talking about being part the elite; the influencers and leaders of the country. These are the kind of people elitist universities want to produce as this boosts their reputation by being the alma-meter who produces the kinds of people who have an impact on society. Intelligence in a teenager isn’t the best indicator of success later in life.
Free education hampers this ideal because it would mean solely academic excellence is the main indicator of who should be in university and who shouldn’t. Many of those who are to benefit from free education do not have these high aspirations and just seek to provide for their families and take them out of poverty.
Preserving and portraying a certain image; elite universities are selling you the experience of what it feels like to be part of the new elites.