The Perceived Advantage Of Prestige

With the polar vortex that essentially shut down the Midwest, I was finally able to read for fun! I chose David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.

It is a quick read, and it has an interesting argument about the perceived advantage of attending a highly ranked, brand-named school. The argument goes like this: If you are a little fish in a big pond (like a student attending an Ivy League institution in terms of sheer brain power), and you are at the bottom of your class (which is probably still in the 90th percentile nationwide), you may be deterred from finishing a difficult degree because you are not used to failure, and you become demoralized. Of course Gladwell offered various statistical analyses to support the idea that this phenomena actually happens.

His argument is that it may be better to be a big fish in a little pond (like a student at a respectable state school) and excel and be motivated to finish a difficult degree.

Gladwell goes on to discuss how this works with affirmative action. He points to evidence that shows that affirmative action may actually be hurting law students. "Affirmative action is practiced most aggressively in law schools, where black students are routinely offered positions in schools one tier higher than they would otherwise be able to attend. The result? According to the law professor Richard Sander, more than half of all African-American law students in the United States -- 51.6 percent -- are in the bottom 10 percent of their law school class and almost three-quarters fall in the bottom 20 percent."

Gladwell suggests that these law students become demoralized and may not finish their law degree. It's an interesting point given the evidence. Gladwell points to further evidence showing that students at the top of their class at Fordham generally did better in the job market than those at the middle or bottom of their class at Columbia even though Fordham is consistently ranked lower than Columbia.

I guess the moral of the story is that it may not always be the best decision to choose your school based on prestige alone. The perceived advantage of attending a prestigious institution may actually be a disadvantage in the long run.


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