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Wednesday, May 31, 2006



«My guess is that this is because in America the Ivy League/non-Ivy distinction is known by all, while in Europe people will often not really know how 'good' a department you come from.»

Well, not very agreeable to me here. In the UK he Oxbridge/non Oxbridge distinction is far more important than Ivy/not Ivy in the USA...

My own wild guesses are more like:

* In the USA universities are rated by fees/tuition, because that is most noticeable barrier to entry.

* In the UK fee/tuition differences are not huge at universities, but they are huge at the secondary schools that give very different chances of entering Oxbridge.

On the continent there are two critical factors that ensure that most universities are rated in a much narrower band:

* Many universities charge no or small tuition.

* Many universities are non-residential.

The latter point is very important: it means that a uni in a large city gets its intake mostly from its surrounding geographical area, so it is mixed by intake, in particular in terms of class.

If you meet someone who graduated at Harvard that usually says a lot about how much she could afford to pay to attend it, and if you meet someone from Oxford that usually says a lot about how much she could afford to pay to attend a good prep school (or to buy a house in the catchment area of a rare desirable state school); but if you meet someone who graduated at the Sorbonne, that mostly tells you her parents lived in the Ile-de-France region (and middle class of course :->).


While the title of this post says "Economists," and I've been prone now and then to poke fun at economists myself, it seems like is a more general phenomenon.

I attended the University of California San Diego (UCSD), studying physics and mathematics, and then went to work for a company based in Cambridge, MA (Bolt Beranek and Newman) in the early 1980s. There were not a few graduates from MIT and Harvard who would look for opportunities to imply the superiority of Eastern Universities (and the East Coast in general) over the West. The east over west snobbery has a long tradition in this country.

It annoyed me for a while, but I learned to ignore it and, as it turns out, success in life is not always going to the number 1 school. And, I think these attitudes are often just games that can be easily overcome or turned on their heads with the appropriate level of irony, sarcasm, and accomplishment.

In the physics and mathematics world, I have a feeling that snobbery as discussed with respect to economists also can be a problem, though since I've not been in academia I can't be sure.

My first boss, who did not get his PhD at MIT (U of Penn), said that there are two types of people in the world: (1) those who say "when I was in college..." when talking about some event in the past and (2) those who say "when I was at MIT..."

Apparently one either goes to MIT or college. I wonder if there is a Cal Tech variant for this phenomenon (if true).

Arthur Eckart

I agree, tuition generally separates rich students and poor students. Moreover, the U.S. has a greater dispersion of abilities than Europe (similar to the disparities in income). Most of the economists I've known came from affluent backgrounds. The Scientific Method of Neoclassical Economics evolved as a branch of moral philosophy. It seems these "high priests" work in economics for other reasons than earning an income. There will always be snobbish people. Unfortunately, some people are not competent enough in their work to support being a snob.

China Law Blog

I find this discussion very interesting, but not surprising. I think that this snobbery is because professors can afford not to live in the real world. In the world of lawyering, where real money is on the line, lawyers are evaluated by their abilities, not by where they went to school.


I found it quite odd when I came to Finland (where I've taught and studied in a couple of Universities), that there really isn't a class distinction between universities here. If you have an MA here (the basic degree) it doesn't matter where it's from.


I imagine a few high school graduates are getting a few giggles on this one. At some PhDs all look like snobs.


The tuition argument only applies for Ivy undergraduates. The top US PhD programs (e.g. MIT, Ivys, Stanford, Berkeley) offer generous funding packages. Very few have to pay tuition for PhD in these schools (except for the first year in some cases).

To get into top PhD programs, what you need performance (excellent undergrad grades and research experience, etc), not wealthy parents.

I've no doubt that Econ PhD courses are equally difficult throughout the US (They all use the same textbooks...). However, those who got into top schools either are very smart or have worked very hard in the first place. Then, during the PhD years, they get to work with Nobel laureates. I believe a bit snobbishness is understandable in such a population? They have been the top of their class all of their lives.

In comparing with European schools, remember that the majority of top PhD programs (judged by research outputs) are in the US. In Econ, only a few European schools are ranked within top 50 internationally. Perhaps that explains the different atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic?


Lawyers are not judged by where they went to school? In that case all the best lawyers must have gone to Harvard, Yale, etc., because those are the only schools the top law firms like Wachtell and Sullivan recruit at.


Frankly, I see no difference in the social context of Economics graduate schools as in others.

It is the pure snobbery of elitism, of the kind the US fought and won a revolution to free itself.

If America has an aristocracy, it is largely academic. These savants perpetuate the ranking because ... it pleases them to do so. There is little other way to measure success, except by reputation. If the latter depends upon which school you come from then, in terms of class snobbism, so much the better for those who come from those schools.

Does this happen more so in the US than Europe. I can't know, but I would be willing to think so. Why? Because Europe has a real aristocratic elite, which is more or less accepted for their figurehead uselessness. But, America doesn't have that.

America needs an aristocracy of sorts; it is a kind of market "branding". All consumer societies submit to the process of branding. We wear designer clothes; drive only the right cars; are seen only in the right places - all to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the crowd. One could say it is almost human.

Why not leave to academia our need for savant aristocrats that we can roll out for time to time to reassure ourselves that we are like ... er, Europeans?

Yes, it is tediously silly. But, a great many social mores and customs are actually quite boring. As Voltaire (was it?) once said, "If God did not exist, mankind would have needed to invent him".

America needed to invent an academic aristocracy.


The American system of ranking universties and then judging you on the basis of where you got your degree is similar to the caste system in India. As an academic, I have felt the effects of this American academic-caste system in a very big way because I got my Ph.D. from a school that no one has heard of (University of South Florida!). I can fully appreciate the comments made here, although I am not an economist, but an engineer. Also, it is very true that foreign-born academics tend to be more casteist in this respect.


A little late to the debate here, but several of the comments under this post are just factually incorrect.

In the US, money is not the barrier to entry to top universities, at either the graduate or undergraduate level. Ivy League schools offer extremely generous financial aid programs for undergraduates, and PhD students pay nothing or almost nothing out of pocket. There are also top state programs like the University of California at Berkeley that offer subsidized tuition. Access to higher education is much more meritocratic in the US than elsewhere, certainly more so than in the UK where Oxford and Cambridge draw 50% of their students from high tuition, non-state secondary schools despite a very small percentage of the population having access to those schools.

If anything in the US, this "snobbery" is important because it isn't all that hard to obtain a degree from a second-tier school with lower standards -- given enough money. There are people who attended schools such USC or UCSD and graduate from the undergrad program with top grades, but they do this by signing up for 2 or 3 classes a year and taking 7 years to graduate (for a degree that should take 4 years), all the while being supported by their wealthy parents. Top tier schools have higher standards that prevent this from happening. At the graduate level, this lack of standards is even worse, with for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix virtually selling PhDs.


RB: "In the US, money is not the barrier to entry to top universities, at either the graduate or undergraduate level."

A university education, never mind whether at the top or not, at its cheapest at a state school in the US, costs how much per year?

How about this answer, from USA Today:
" ... compared with the cost of attending a private college, an education at a public institution is still a bargain. Last year, annual tuition and fees for a four-year public university averaged $3,754 for state residents compared with $17,123 for a private college, says a College Board report. With room and board, those figures climbed to $9,008 at state universities and $23,578 at private institutions."

So, a graduate from a state school starts life with a $36,000 debt, which is not all that much admittedly. Means testing will allow some, but not all, to get a scholarship go to university. For the dirt poor, a college education is still Mission Impossible.

In Europe, and in most countries, no means test is necessary at state administrated schools. An education, like health care, is considered a birthright. Moreover, both are central to a modern, productive economy. Throughout the life of an individual, one may need expert medical care or retraining/re-education.

In the case of health care, the life style of an individual greatly affects their health. Perhaps “conditional testing” on a periodic basis should determine how much a person pays for medical insurance.

But, in terms of education or retraining, the state should take it upon itself not only to provide it, but to employ enticements (like stipends or part-work/part-schooling programs) in certain skills that the economy may require. Whatever, there has been an common opinion that students are not graduating with skills/talents/competencies that allow them to be quickly effective.

Better yet, one should not have to join an Army reserve program for an education ... only to come home to one’s family in a body-bag.

Arthur Eckart

I agree with RichB the U.S. university system is generally a meritocracy and low tier U.S. universities are poor quality. However, generally, even average U.S. universities are equal in quality to top U.S. universities. There are better students in top tier schools with higher graduation rates. However, most classes or programs, particularly in tougher fields, e.g. hard sciences, at top and average U.S. universities are equally rigorous, and the instructors are basically the same quality. Also, I may add, not long ago, there was only one university in the U.S. that had a part-time Ph.D economics program.

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