Who cares about the Ivy League?

Noah Smith:

There’s a hell of a lot that’s broken and messed up about our education system here in the United States. But far too much of our discourse about education focuses on a handful of tiny elite private universities, mostly located in the Northeast.

Everyone seems to care a whole lot about the Ivy League. When a bunch of Ivies (and a few other schools) were found to have sold spots to a few rich kids back in 2019, it caused an unholy shitstorm of rage. A vast amount of ink has been spilled over that lawsuit alleging anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard. When Cornell changes the name of its English department to the Department of Literatures in English (apparently because the latter is less colonialist or something), it draws national commentary.

Over at Slow Boring, Matt Yglesias writes that if Ivies really wanted to promote social justice, they would let in more poor kids instead of fiddling with the name of the English department. Of course, he’s right. Elite schools let in mostly rich kids, because they have every incentive to do so. These schools all give out need-based financial aid, which means that rich kids are a profit center (they pay full price), while poor kids are a cost center (they get a free ride). Even a nonprofit business likes to maximize profit centers and minimize cost centers, so of course the Ivies try their hardest to let in rich kids. Also, given America’s low economic mobility, rich kids are highly likely to become rich adults, and rich adults give big gifts to their alma maters — another important source of income for top schools. So of course these schools aren’t trying to educate the poor. What incentive do they have to do so?

But on a more fundamental level, how much does any of this really matter? How central are the Ivies and other elite private schools to our educational system in the U.S.? And how much would it change our country if they changed their admissions policies?