Does The College That You Attend Signify Your Excellence as a Learner?

“I go to Harvard University, so it is fair to say that I am one of the best learners in this country.” I don’t watch much television, but feeling a bit under the weather and not having the mental focus to work on much, I experienced a first, watching an old episode of MasterChef. Being the first episode, contestants were competing against one another for a spot on the show. In the segment that I watched, there were four people competing against one another. When one of the judges asked the first contestant if he had what it took to be a MasterChef, the young man replied with first sentence in this article. He argued that, because he is a student at Harvard University, it is logical to conclude that he is on of the best learners in the country.

One of the best learners in the country? Is that actually what Harvard students believe, that getting into and being successful at Harvard college signifies that you are at the top of the list when it comes to being a learner? He is one of the most privileged learners in the country. He is studying at one of most financially resourced institutions in the country. He is likely stilled at jumping through academic hoops. He likely scores well on traditional academic assessments. He clearly has confidence in his abilities, which is a key factor in learner agency and success. I could agree with any of these statements. However, suggesting that being a student at Harvard signifies being one of the best learners in this country is, to me, unfounded.

I’ve met too many unschooled people who are world-class learners to believe what he said. Plenty of employers have discovered that there are equally or more capable learners / employers from non-elite and largely unknown higher education institutions. In addition, being skilled at meeting high standards in a formal academic institution does not directly correlate to being a world-class learner when it comes to being a chef, parent, athlete, author, musician, or a thousand other roles or skills.

I’m sure that it was a harmless statement to most people who this young man-made this claim. It might even be true that most people agreed with him. Harvard is a great college and their acceptance rate clearly limits the pool of candidates who get a chance to study there. Yet, that is something qualitatively different from claiming that attending this school puts you in the category of élite learner (in the broader sense).

Being a world-class learner is something far more open and democratized. It is something that many admission offices do not miss. Close 40,000 high school students applied to Harvard in 2017, most of whom where denied admission. Yet, this source suggests that there are 20 million that were expected to attend college in 2017, the vast majority of whom did not even apply to Harvard. Maybe this young man is among the best learners in this nation, but if he is, that is not proven because he attended Harvard.

It is fine to celebrate the excellence of top academic institutions and to recognition the accomplishments of its students, but this conflation of élite college attendance and being among the best learners is not helpful in promoting access and opportunity, or in accurately representing the nature of being an “élite” learner.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

One Reply to “Does The College That You Attend Signify Your Excellence as a Learner?”

  1. Robert Columbia

    There seem to be two major arguments as to why the prestige of institution attended might be considered an indicator of a person’s educational attainment, skill, or (insert your favorite metric word here).

    One is that ‘elite’ institutions are just superior in terms of educational quality, and that if, for example, lower prestige institutions could just master that je ne sais quoi about Harvard’s competencies and best practices in education (maybe it’s the secret sauce in the cafeteria!), they too could produce Harvard-equivalent graduates.

    The second is that, as you mentioned, ‘elite’ institutions tend to have higher admissions standards, and so graduates of those institutions might be expected to be of higher caliber due to their own inherent greatnesses. In other words, the quality of the institution’s instruction itself might be the same as lower-prestige schools, or possibly even a little *lower*, it’s mostly just the quality of *inputs* that matters.

    As I have learned more myself, I have found that I am more confused than ever. It seems to come back down to the issue of assessment. While we have some tools to measure IQ, literacy, math skills, and general knowledge, the ability to give, say, a wide critical thinking test (or an “excellence” test) to graduates of hundreds of institutions and produce a comprehensive comparative score report is somewhat lacking. Even though I might *want* to propose that we test the problem using a “busing” methodology (force high-scoring students to attend low-prestige universities, and force elite institutions to accept students who barely passed high school, etc.), we can’t really evaluate whether that changes educational outcomes if we lack the ability to assess them outside of the institutions themselves.

    So what do we do? Is this a problem that at least is solvable (e.g. we *can* develop ways to assess quality outside of institution attended, we just need more time (brain-hours?) or more research to do so), or are we going to always end up back with circular arguments (e.g. “Harvard graduates are elite because Harvard is elite, and Harvard is elite because its grads are elite, yes it’s true.”)?

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