Friday, October 15, 2004

The Art of Winning an Unfair Game 

I've always wondered how the east coast can have such a strong concentration of the first-rate schools. On the east coast, you'll find tons of top schools that people just have to go to: Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, UPenn, Chicago, Michigan, Brown, NYU, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Duke, UVA, and plenty of others. The west coast has Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, UCLA, and maybe UCSD. That's what you've got if you're, say, west of North Dakota (And I'm counting universities here, there's plenty of well-respected liberal arts colleges on the west coast, though I suspect those are also outweighed by the east coast). Only five of the top 30 schools are west of Texas, according to US News.

This isn't really surprising, given that the east coast has been settled for much longer, but it is a bit strange that most of the top students on the west half of the country get shipped to the other side. You wouldn't expect it to last over time. Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD are big schools, but that can't possibly make up for it. The workhorses of the west, the "midrange" mentioned above, are the other 7 UC schools. No other state school system is well respected on this half of the country, and the California State system isn't very good.

Given this lopsided distribution, it's only natural that over time, more schools in the west would slowly evolve and move up the ranks, right? Having gone to one of those workhorse schools, I'm glad to see it. In fact, you might have expected this to happen at USCB: How many other schools can give professors offices with an ocean view? It probably has a better faculty than you might otherwise think it could afford.

I don't know if UCSB can ever get past its reputation, but it's pretty clear that it is improving dramatically (in reputation, at least; clearly if it's being considered a better school, it's been a better school for some time). Indeed, for the small difference in the quality of education, there's a large difference in tuition between the UCs and the Ivy Leagues. That cost-effectiveness is in itself something to be proud of, I think, but it clearly doesn't translate into respect or earnings. Just try telling it to an Ivy Leaguer; they'll nod and smile but wouldn't be caught dead there. Perhaps some day the "other" UCs will be as well-regarded as the "other" east coast schools, and provide a stronger representation for the western half of the country on the lists of the top schools.

What a wonderful thing that would be. Another coast filled with excellent schools, but without the aristocratic names and self-importance. Instead of old neo-classical buildings and snow, simple, laid-back architecture in paradise, and with respect.

Actually, it seems we've already reached that point: Where the population is dense, you'll find the good schools. Texas has UT Austin which is very good, and the west coast also has UW.
I went to a "midrange" school (University of Illinois) for engineering. Of the schools ranked higher, quite a few of them are not known for strong engineering programs. The ones with strong reputations are: MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, UMich, and Case Western, putting UIUC at #8 in that list (compared to #37 overall).

That wank aside, my opinion of the Ivy League is that it's not so much that you get a better education, but more that the networking opportunities are much stronger. The students on those campus' are a self-selecting group of extremely motivated individuals, who will probably continue to be motivated to "succeed" (however you want to define it) in the business world, and show preference in hiring (or promoting or whatever) first to their fellow alums, second to alums of other Ivies, and all else a distant third.

IOW, a self-perpetuating old boy network, although increasingly, you need not be a boy to participate.

Having grown up on the east coast and seeing lots of my HS alums go on to the Ivy League (while I went to the midwest for a more pedestrian engineering education), I've long since learned not to worry about it. There are far too many pompous asses in the world to waste emotional energy thinking about.

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