Opinion

Ivies poisoned

Now I know how members of obscure occupations or ethnic groups feel when their existence is discovered by The New York Times.

As a graduate of a small liberal-arts college, I sometimes wondered whether the Times thought that everyone attended an Ivy League college. How else to explain the obsessive quality with which (to take one example) the Gray Lady covered happenings great and small at Harvard?

Granted, it was news when then-Harvard president and former treasury secretary Larry Summers (now a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page) made career-ending comments that seemed to disparage the math skills of women, a cheap shot that was heard around the world as defined by the Times. But consider the blanket coverage the paper afforded to a much less cosmic story, the revelation that a Harvard sophomore had plagiarized several passages from a young-adult author.

Recently, however, The Times has discovered non-Ivy colleges. In February, the paper published a generous feature story about Loren Pope, a journalist-turned-counselor and the author of a book called Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. (One of the 40 is my alma mater, Allegheny College.) The story by Alan Finder noted that Pope had long promoted "small, little-known liberal arts colleges" and that "he sees as false the assumption that the selectivity of Ivy League and other elite colleges translates into the best education."

The story included the most provocative assertion in Pope's book: that "for the undergraduates, the Ivies and their clones are scams. In those universities, you will be ignored. There are no rewards for teaching, so professors, famous or not, do little of it." On Wednesday the Times published a follow-up piece by Finder that suggested an additional reason for exploring the world outside the Ivy League: The admission crunch at the Ivies was frustrating the aspirations of the children of Ivy League-besotted Times readers.

In a story datelined Bethlehem, Pa. (the home of Lehigh University), Finder wrote: "Call them second-tier colleges (a phrase some administrators despise) or call them the new Ivies (this, they can live with). Twenty-five to 40 universities like Lehigh, traditionally perceived as being a notch below the most elite, have seen their cachet climb because of the astonishing competitive crush at the top."

Note that their "cachet" has increased—not necessarily the quality of the education they offer. And it's all about cachet, isn't it?

Some of my best friends attended Ivy League colleges. (My only Ivy credential is a master's degree from Yale Law School, where I occasionally rubbed shoulders with undergraduates; and yeah, they were pretty bright, though not more incandescent than the best and the brightest at a lot of other places). My friends are indeed bright people. But it didn't take stories in The New York Times to convince me that a good education also can be had at "most selective" institutions like Lehigh or "more selective" ones like Allegheny. (The ratings come from U.S. News and World Report.)

More important, there are first-rate people at second-tier colleges and vice versa. Indeed, Pope told Finder that he dropped some colleges from later editions of his book because they had become too selective and weren't admitting a "sufficiently broad range of students."

My only quarrel with Pope is that he seems to project his own nuanced view of higher education on to those who hire graduates. In a prefatory chapter titled "Relax! Your Future Is Assured!," he denies that an Ivy League diploma has any influence on career success "as the corporate downsizings of the early '90s proved."

On this point, alas, Pope in not infallible. Although I haven't conducted a study, scientific or otherwise, I'm morally certain that in elite journalism circles, a degree from Harvard or Yale still trumps one from one of the "new Ivies" or from "colleges that change lives" or even from stellar public universities like Berkeley, UCLA and Michigan. And not only in journalistic circles: The old school tie doesn't bind as tightly in this country as it does in Britain, but it's worth pulling in that job interview.

Last week I had lunch with an aspiring journalist with two impressive internships behind him and "good clips." I assured him these would be assets as he sought a perch in our business, but that he also would be helped—I should have said disproportionately—by his degree from an Ivy League school. Never mind that it was a place that Loren Pope says provided "miserable educations" to the sons of two unnamed college presidents.

When I wished him good luck, I didn't say: "Relax! Your Future is Assured." But it wouldn't have been much of an exaggeration.

Michael McGough is The Times' senior editorial writer. Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.

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