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February 17, 2011 10:00 AM University Education: Equal vs. Unequal

By Daniel Luzer

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Last week I wrote a piece about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker about the college ratings system.

Recently, while discussing that story, Gladwell made an interesting point about how college selectivity and quality actually works in America. Check it out here (higher education discussion begins about 33:00). Gladwell explains:

A crucial difference between highly unequal societies like America and reasonably equal societies like Canada’s is to lower the delta level of educational institutions. Here you’ve got school way up here like Harvard and schools way down here, like whatever.
In Canada in that era [the early 1980s] there were, say, 10 colleges in the province. The top seven were considered to roughly equal. Waterloo is a little better for math. Toronto is in Toronto is in Toronto so, you know, it’s kind of good but no would look askance at someone with a degree from Calgary and think that he was inferior to someone with a degree from Western, which is in London, Ontario.
That’s a crucial part of what it means to create economic mobility in society; there’s no penalty to getting a college degree from someplace that considered down on the list. We’re not hung up about it.

When asked by New Yorker Editor David Remnick what was wrong with educational excellence, having educational excellence all in one place, Gladwell said something interesting about quality and higher education ratings.

It depends on what you mean by better. There are some of these schools where one can receive an education that’s quite excellent it seems to me. Very often what better means in the American context is one of two things.
One is that it has nice amenities, that it’s fancy. Mine wasn’t like that. It was kind of run down. Tuition the University of Toronto was like $900 a year. You can’t have a fancy campus with that.
The last time I went to Princeton, however, I thought I was somewhere like a resort in Switzerland. It was like Gstaad Princeton.
The second thing that they mean by good is actually really important but it’s not relevant to undergraduate education. What they mean is that the schools produce world-class research. This is a very important thing to judging the worth of a university. It is, however, irrelevant to deciding whether or not you’re getting a good undergraduate education. Evidence suggests that a research focus is either not correlated or negatively correlated to undergraduate learning.
Ranking, in terms of trying to determine the quality of graduate schools, is a fairly legitimate exercise.

In terms of undergraduate education, however, it’s an odd little project, isn’t it? [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer