The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Cost of Prestige

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“You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race.”

—David Foster Wallace

There’s no doubt that a college’s level of prestige affects how people view the institution and thus the students that go there. We see it every year when, after US News releases its rankings, institutions either brag about their rank or denounce the rankings altogether. But while the influence of academic prestige is undeniable, our society’s obsession with it is neither healthy nor productive.

California has two public school systems: University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU or state schools). Coming from California, I grew up thinking I would end up at a UC school — it had been ingrained in my brain starting in middle school. Once I got to high school, the pressure to go to one of these schools became more prominent. The UCs generally have a better reputation than the CSUs because of their lower acceptance rates, traditional atmospheres and top rankings. I saw friends whose parents expected or forced them to go to a UC over a state school because of the perceived reputation — even if certain UCs were worse than the CSUs. 

I’m a current student at Boston University but I was previously at San Diego State University — a CSU. I often forget that I’m at a prestigious school now and am reminded of it when I get certain opportunities or gain prominent industry connections because of the school. 

Our society puts heavy weight on prestige and It often feels like if you don’t get the best internship, job, or education, you will be doomed in the real world. Sure, these things may give you a step up, but it’s not everything. Yet there is still so much pressure to do 50,000 things while you’re in high school and college in order to look good on paper. 

Our obsession with prestige makes a lot of sense when you look at the reasons why we seek it. At its core, prestige is directly connected to social status — better college means a better job, which means more social status. We do things to benefit our social status because our ancestors found that popularity and status lead to more protection and security. We as humans naturally want to be liked because we are social creatures. As a result, we see a society that places a lot of weight on how you present yourself and how much status you hold.

Seeking high status isn’t always bad. Showing that you are a good candidate for a school or job through achievements and work you have done are admirable things that should be taken into account. This thirst for prestige and status becomes a problem when it is all someone cares about; when you forget there is more to value than just status. 

The most striking example of prestige-induced ego I can remember was from decision day in high school. Everyone showed up to school in merch from the college they committed to. The courtyard was a sea of college hoodies: UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, San Jose State. The list goes on. Standing in the hallway before my first-period AP statistics class, I noticed one of my classmates wearing a local community college shirt. I disregarded it and went on with my day.

It came to my attention at lunch that said classmate wore the shirt as a joke — he was going to NYU. I wasn’t even going to a community college, but any ounce of respect I had for that person left my body. How could someone feel so entitled by their school that they would go and disrespect so many people without a second thought? 

To put it nicely, his entitlement was likely a product of NYU’s reputation but deep down this action exposed his fragile ego. Community colleges and the students who attend them often face judgment because people assume the worst of them. People assume that community colleges offer lower-quality education and that the students are lacking in some way that justifies viewing them in a dimmer light. While many students do choose to attend community college to save money, get more time to decide what they want to do in the future, or make up for lower grades in high school this shouldn’t lower their worth. Community colleges may not be able to offer the same resources and opportunities as more prestigious schools but there are a lot of good things that they have to offer: accessibility, smaller class sizes — and once again — affordability. 

In pulling this prank, that classmate showed me the perpetual judgment that society has regarding what school you attended. There is a big problem with stigma surrounding community colleges which often deters students from choosing community colleges or makes them feel ashamed if they do go that route.

It’s true that many powerful and successful people come from elite universities but because of this, students and their parents feel pressured to get into a prestigious school. This need to get into an elite school explains why the 2019 Varsity Blues Scandal happened. The 2019 Varsity Blues Scandal was a nationwide conspiracy that involved cheating on college entrance exams that resulted in the unfair admission of students into top universities. Parents put too much weight on a university’s impact on social status. 

Students — including myself — also feel a lot of pressure to do as many internships as possible. I’ve seen people take internships for the name and the potential references they could get from it while putting up with no pay and significant tolls on their mental health. It’s concerning to see the lengths people will go to get experience.

One of my journalism professors once told us that getting the biggest and best internship doesn’t matter. What you gain from the experience is what matters and you can get amazing experience even at a small local paper. Hearing that calmed my nerves when it came to internships, but I also think it applies to the conversation of university prestige. Chasing prestige can be helpful but — like with any good thing — too much emphasis on it becomes toxic. 

University prestige is the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of other factors that go into social status: gender, race, and sexuality, to name a few. However, understanding the stigma behind universities can ease into further conversations about the structure of our society.

Corinne Davidson is a student at Boston University studying journalism and the managing editor of the independent magazine Trash Mag.

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