“Elite” universities have a narrow vision of the world

Many “elite” institutions recruit from a narrow range of class backgrounds and give students a blinkered perspective on their future prospects

COMMENT

University league tables which are published by many major newspapers, or conducted by specific research bodies, give us an insight into what universities might be seen as “elite”. I was very privileged, and worked very hard, to be in a position to accept a place at the London School of Economics where I subsequently spent a year studying. The LSE would be considered in the category of “elite” by many and consistently ranks in the top ten in the world for many subjects.

My decision to leave was incredibly difficult but I, as did an unhealthy proportion of my peers, found the atmosphere stifling. I was very lucky to have the option to leave, as many students (particularly international ones) remain due to financial pressure, or the fact that many people ask incredulously “Why would you leave?”

After all, elite universities like the LSE hand you a Curriculum Vitae that will open all the career opportunities in the world to make as much money as you want. They give you an education that is “research driven”, teaching you “critical thinking” that will have employers courting you in droves. So why are students there so miserable?

By the end of my time there I was quite desensitised to people having nervous breakdowns or popping caffeine pills, and the many, many people around me who were on antidepressants or self-medicating with substances. Of the people I knew, they attributed their depression to the environment of the university that left us with no room to breathe.

Who does this system serve best, the students or the profits and rankings of the University? What kind of graduates does this system produce, who then are in huge positions of power in the legal, economic and political sectors predominantly?

Important outcomes

Of course, students everywhere face similar challenges, but elite universities have worryingly high levels of anxiety, perfectionism and depression. Many believe that it is not the case that universities have a responsibility to create a comfortable and more relaxed environment, but I certainly do not believe that the strain placed on students is conducive to producing well-rounded, empathetic and self assured individuals.

Rather, the pressure or narrow academic focus of these universities might lean towards turning these already high-achieving school leavers into highly strung, risk averse graduates, who have spent probably a large amount of their formative years in the elite bubble.

I believed that a degree from an elite university would help me to help other people in better ways. William Deresiewicz, author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” and former Yale professor, states in his New Republic article “Don’t send Your Kid to the Ivy League” that “our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious timid and lost with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose’.

As I witnessed, “look behind the seamless well adjustment, and what you find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression.”

This might paint quite a damning picture of what students at elite universities are like. I met many talented, kind, ambitious and inspiring people in my time there, and I continue to be inspired by such students at Trinity.

Elite universities have access to the best pool of academically capable students in the world, the cream of the crop, and they are able through rigorous admissions processes to select their chosen array of students. It is unsurprising that these people wish to achieve highly and have successful careers. Deresiewicz also writes that the “irony is that elite students are told they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing the same few career paths.”

Is our society best-placed funnelling the top tier of academically capable students into largely finance, legal, or top paying technology jobs? The focus at LSE was on the finance sector, with many students seeking a career in investment banking. There were constant banking “networking” events and a huge presence of the banks on campus in terms of promotion drives, and some students’ studies were being funded by banks such as Goldman Sachs.

As a student of Anthropology and Law even I was advised not to worry by the careers department: there were anthropology graduates working at Goldman. I attended countless careers and networking events at the LSE, which gradually made me feel like I would be stupid to want to work in the NGO sector or social policy. These jobs were sneered at by some of my peers, because as a graduate of an elite university, the primary expectation is that you will earn a lot of money in a top job and this is what success is, that is how maximum output is reached.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many capable graduates do choose the security of the concrete internships and vacation schemes of top commercial law firms and banks over the often unpaid and unpredictable sector of more social-development-orientated positions. The university education then becomes little more than a training ground for such positions of power, leaving less room for the “critical thinking skills” students are taught to be put into practice in sectors where they might well be needed. Instead, many of the top graduates simply go into the top-paying, most secure jobs in similar sectors.

Class

It is probably going to surprise precisely no-one when I say that most of the students at elite universities are from middle to upper class backgrounds. This is also an issue at Trinity which has the lowest number of students in receipt of student grants of any college in Ireland.

Something which I believe exacerbates income and class gaps in elite universities in the UK is the personal statement system, and the similar system in the US where your school and extracurriculars are revealed. It is no longer enough to be academically driven, you must also demonstrate achievements in other areas. Your hobbies, awards and work experience must make up a statement to wow the admissions team. It is difficult for students from lower income brackets to afford to do impressive extra-curricular activities or obtain work placements, and many of the fee-paying schools in England offer far more assistance to students in writing the personal statement.

There are some benefits to the personal statement in that it requires one to be able to articulate interest in the subject, but I believe greater class anonymity is warranted.

Ross Douthat, in his article in the New York Times, writes that this “holistic” approach to admissions has two consequences for the US. “It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.”

At the LSE I was suddenly surrounded by incredibly wealthy people from all around the world. As someone who went to a community school, I found this quite a culture shock initially. I did not have a problem integrating, but it saddens me that the opportunities and resources at an elite universities fingertips are granted to such a narrow section of society.

It is also troubling that many of these people will never have any need to mix with anyone from lower class brackets. How could they then possibly hope to relate to the desires and needs of that class, with they are paradoxically told they should do in the liberal educational framework they are operating within?

Research

We conducted a social research project in one of our modules, specifically examining whether the mix of students at LSE could be described as a “cosmopolitan” community in terms of the diverse nationalities. What we found was that it was akin to what Steven Vertovec and Robert Cohen (2002) have termed an “elite project”. Yes, there are students from many nationalities and ethnicities, but they are products of similar education systems, and the vast majority the children of the elite, making the environments of these universities very homogenous as opposed to being “melting pots” or hotbeds of conflicting ideologies.

This is perhaps counterproductive to the kind of innovation we need in many sectors if we want lawyers, politicians and social policies that don’t merely reflect the dominant ideology and work to preserve the position of the upper class.

My experiences were mixed, and I took the best crack at that year that I could. I was active in societies, mentored prospective law students from lower-income backgrounds, did legal work experience, and partied hard.

The motto of the LSE students union was “Work Hard, Play Hard”, which I took very literally. I worked myself very hard and always achieved good grades. It may have been a form of self-medication for some students, although this is probably a factor at all universities. But certainly going out helped me to get through the year there. It was normal for me to spend 6 to­ 8 hours in the library and then go out. I found this to be unsustainable eventually.

There is a common myth that these types of institutions do not facilitate going out or other activities, which I found not to be the case. However, the constant workload and competitive atmosphere means that time as a resource must constantly be maximised. Even time devoted to relaxing must be spent efficiently relaxing.

This intensity leads to a lot of isolation and limited self-exploration time for students in the sense that there is no time to make mistakes. It also quite unfortunately means that students may come to value themselves entirely on grades and base their self­-worth around academic achievements. In the US this has been noted at high school level in the increased use of Adderall and other study drugs as well as the phenomenon of the “Silicon Valley Suicides”, where students from the most affluent high schools in the US – seen as paths to Ivy League schools – experience high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Julie Lythcott­ Haims is a former dean of freshmen at Stanford and wrote a book after leaving the position entitled “How to Raise an Adult”. She speaks in her Ted Talk, “Throw Out the Checklisted Childhood”, of the need for better parenting and educational responses to the increased rates of suicide. In her ten years as dean, she speaks on how each year each group was “more and more accomplished than the last” and “great at being told what to do”, but “less and less familiar with themselves”.

She also notes the huge rise in mental health illnesses. She describes in her book how these accomplished students “would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that this outwardly successful situation was their miserable life.”

Students at elite universities are consistently told they are better than other students and are entitled to success because of their achievements. The exclusivity and door­-opening aspect of my degree was emphasised to me from day one. But unfortunately, the narrow vision of what success constitutes is having severe consequences for the mental wellbeing of students.

I found the anthropology learning experience and department to be absolutely fantastic and enriching, and will certainly never see the world in the same way again. But ultimately I found the atmosphere quite oppressive, and this was worsened by the fact that so many other students also hated it.

Trinity maintains a very good academic reputation but still allows its students to take a less intense approach toward studies at undergraduate level and instead get engaged in the many activities around campus. I have enjoyed being part of many society activities at Trinity, not just because they will benefit my CV, but because I actually enjoy them, and in the process have gained far more life experience. Students at Trinity are in my experience far happier and tend to be more grounded, though Trinity is also largely the preserve of the upper and middle classes.

I believe that serious reflection on the system of elite education needs to happen if we wish to both have academic work that is of a high quality and students, graduates and employees who are happier and more fulfilled.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.