In an era of overabundance, elite colleges matter more than ever

The following stories went viral this week: Harvard applications drop 5% after year of turmoil on the Ivy League campus; and by Nate Silver, Go to a state school.

Every year, for the flimsiest of justification or evidence, pundits trot out the same tired predictions or pronouncements about how the ‘Ivy League has peaked’ or ‘elite degrees losing luster’. The ongoing campus protests and antisemitism controversies in the aftermath of October 7th has seen an uptick of these stories:

And year after year, such proclamations ring hollow as elite colleges remain competitive. I saw this same pattern in 2020-2021 during Covid in which pundits similarly predicted online learning would topple the college hegemony or something to that effect. For example, from The Financial Times in April 2020, Coronavirus bursts the US college education bubble. 4 years later has it burst? Hardly.

For reasons that were never made all that clear, online classes would somehow replace traditional 4-year degrees. Or erode or dilute the prestige of top colleges. Neither of those predictions came to be. Ivy League demand and prestige continued to surge after Covid despite the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Harvard’s acceptance rate is only 3.5 percent. (Google gives 3.2 percent; nevertheless, it’s very low.) From the above CBS article:

Harvard said it received 5% fewer undergraduate applications this year compared with a year earlier, a dip that follows a tumultuous year for the Ivy League school that included the resignation of President Claudine Gay and a backlash over antisemitic incidents on the campus.

Speaking of flimsy, this represents an increase from 3.5% to 3.675% admitted, not exactly something to write home about. To get an idea of how small this is, out of a thousand students who apply, this represents an increase of just a single additional student admitted, from 35 to 36. And this is among applicants who are presumably well-qualified, with good test scores and high GPAs and at the top or near-top of their class, not students selected at random. So this already very-low acceptance rate is even worse than it appears.

In 2021-2023 saw similar predictions that the post-Covid trend of ‘test optional’ for admissions would also hurt the Ivy League. In a reversal and after critcism, Harvard and MIT now require test scores. Now for 2024 the catalyst is elite colleges failing to sufficiently condemn antisemitism, and pro-Hamas campus protests. However, colleges have always been at the front lines of the culture wars, like the Vietnam War protests of the ’70s, or the ’60s counterculture. So this is not exactly new.

It’s always something, and nothing ever comes of it. Top-10 colleges continue to see huge demand, rock-bottom acceptance rates, and awarded degrees continue to confer prestige, status, and good wages. Nothing changes. Moreover, non-elite schools also have plenty of wokeness and protests, such as the Evergreen State College protests of 2017, which is a bottom-ranked school, so this leaves elite schools still on top.

I take the opposite view as the pundit consensus: recent trends only conspire to make Ivy League degrees more valuable, not less. Similar to how legacy media companies have thrived in the post-Trump era, particularly paywall-powered publications such as the WSJ and the NYTs, defying predictions of obsolescence, so too will elite degrees and colleges for the same reasons.

In an era of automation and a world overflowing with ‘content’, which can mean anything from 60-second TikTok reels, rambling 12-minute YouTube videos with 10 minutes of ads and product placement, or generic how-to guides full of ads and SEO-filler, in which thanks to Ai the barriers to content creation have been lowered to almost nothing–Ai can now even make videos–elite degrees retain that necessary, invaluable scarcity and exclusivity that is rapidly eroding everywhere else in life before our eyes.

Anyone in any part of the world can become an ‘unpaid contributor’, and even journalism jobs are being replaced by Ai. There is no need to pay journalists a journalism salary when the average, non-discriminating reader cannot tell the difference between Ai-generated content and human-generated content. Does the journalism profession have any say in the matter? No. Disruption is uninvited and does not ask for permission; it just ‘happens’ and either professions adapt or die.

This makes it necessary to distinguish oneself as being irreplaceable or above the masses of uncredited content producers. As the success of the NYTs and Substack paywalls show, despite Ai, people will patronize quality human writing. Some journalists adapted by starting their own Substacks, such as Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi. Discriminating readers still care about the opinion of credentialed elites and vetted or reputable sources. When anyone can throw their 2 cents into the content nexus, yet our attention spans are finite, this only elevates the role of gatekeepers to provide some clarity or hierarchy as to what or who is worth paying attention to. And that is the same with elite colleges, as conserving scarcity in a world of overabundance.

The economic forces that drive profits, productivity, and efficiency only make elite degrees more valuable and resilient. Being hired means implicitly having to answer, “How do I generate more value than Ai, outsourced labor, or unpaid contributors?”. Yeah maybe 40 years ago it didn’t matter if you went to an elite college–or college at all for that matter–but the returns to an elite education in terms of career options and ‘doors opening’ have never been greater, and I see little reason or evidence for this to change.

Of the bloggers I follow, a lot of them have elite degrees. It helps in almost all respects of life, not just career-related, but conveying invaluable intellectual credibility for any endeavor, when first impressions still matter. Wokeness and protests does not change this. Standing out as someone worth paying attention to in an unstoppable torrent of content competing for attention, matters more than ever.