Why I’m Better Than You

In a somewhat recent New York Times piece on the return on investment (ROI for the acronym set) of elite education, the author suggests that graduates of top universities don’t necessarily make more than graduates of less prestigious schools.

Would you pay $230,000 for your kid to go to Harvard? That’s what it costs. And your kid ain’t getting in to Harvard unless you’ve dropped about $500,000 on private tuition and/or other educational expenses prior to acceptance.

You should be willing to pay anything, because Harvard’s brand and 7% acceptance rate will put your kid in rare company. Humans love to throw praise and money at rare company.

Sir, your boorish state-school jabbering is fogging up my monocle.

I went to Northwestern, a rather elite institution that also happens to be located in the Midwest, thus smoothing the jagged edges of privilege with a good dose of down-home humility. I ended up there due to a glaring oversight by the admission folks at Harvard, so I arrived somewhat defeated, with chip firmly glued to shoulder.

My headline, “Why I’m Better Than You”, was designed to grab your attention, and is not by any means what I, as a nice self-deprecating Midwestern guy, really think. I learned how to grab attention and deflect praise (and derision) at Northwestern.

Since graduating many moons ago, I have encountered nothing but open doors thanks to my university affiliation. The Northwestern Mafia rules Hollywood, and even employers and colleagues who aren’t quite sure where NU is are aware that it’s a good school because we lose a lot of sporting contests to bigger, dumber Big 10 universities. Believe me, I’ve tried to screw up my career with indecision and abrupt moves, and I just can’t. It’d be even harder to screw up had I gone to Harvard.

With great schools, getting in is the hard part. Once you’ve scored off the charts on standardized tests and crammed like crazy to graduate at the top of your class (oh, and volunteered, been a top athlete, and led several school organizations), you’re on easy street. However, most overachievers find the overachieving habit hard to shake. They end up doing well in undergrad, pleasing their demanding parents with more eyeball-popping standardized test scores, and getting into elite graduate institutions. They work for top-notch companies and do top-notch work.

But what makes an overachiever an overachiever? Is it Chinese mothers, as the WSJ recently averred? I’ve done OK with a Southern Ohio mama. I was told you can’t study for the SAT, Harvard is full of rich assholes, and your best will never be good enough for someone. Either in spite of or because of that sage advice, I’ve managed to stitch together a modestly above-average existence by most popular measures.

Above all else, an overachiever like me just wants you to like me. That’s why humans achieve. And perception is everything. If you appear better, smarter, and faster on paper, you are better in reality, and more people will like you (assuming you’re not obnoxiously blogging about this stuff). That’s what’s at the heart of the race to elite educational institutions, which in San Francisco and New York begins with waiting lists for elite preschools. We’ll do anything for an edge, and it costs more because it’s worth more.

It’s worth more because the top school’s name allows the resume to make the cut, the interview to be granted, the interviewee (and girls at cocktail parties) to be impressed, and the job to be awarded. This generally comes along with the salary attached to a position given to a highly decorated and universally recognized smart person. No matter how hard we try not to be, we are superficial people living in a superficial world.

Let’s also not be fooled by headlines about the cost of private colleges. Elite private institutions with rich alumni and parents-of-students dole out billions of dollars in grants to ensure that smart poor kids can attend and get a leg up. I paid less to attend Northwestern for four years than I would’ve paid for one year at Ohio State.

The moral of the story: Go to the best possible school you can, always, and encourage your kids to do the same without stooping to physical or emotional abuse.

A little psychological abuse is OK, and they’ll thank you for it later.

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