On Not Buying Into the Mythology of “Prestige” Universities


Published on October 13, 2021

George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference

Some years ago, a Catholic prep school invited me to address its parents’ association on the future of Catholic education. After describing how a truly Catholic education, stressing human and sacramental formation as well as intellectual competence, equipped young people to meet the challenges of a world that had lost its way, I got into a protracted dust-up during the Q&A period. 

In my prepared remarks, I had extolled the virtues of small Catholic liberal arts colleges with rigorous core curricula that introduced students to the best that Western civilization has to offer. I also took a few shots at the high-priced schools that fill the top tiers of those foolish college-ratings systems, but which are too often sandboxes of political correctness in which intellectual silliness (and worse) is on tap for something like $90,000 per annum. The pushback was fierce. Unless Johnny or Jane went to Stanford or Duke or the Ivies, parents insisted, he or she would be ruined for life. I countered with the example of my daughters, graduates of the University of Dallas who had gone on to fulfilling family and professional lives after attending top-tier graduate schools (in medicine and arts education) for which UD had prepared them magnificently. 

The pushback continued. What about “networking”? I suggested that serious professional “networking” took place in grad school and that the undergraduate years were better spent furnishing one’s mind and soul than in schmoozing with an eye to the main chance—especially in a campus environment hostile to Catholic understandings of what makes for genuine human happiness. This went on for forty-five minutes or so, but I don’t think minds were changed. Too many parents had drunk the Kool-Aid of “prestige schools” for me to make much of a dent.

The following morning, I had coffee with some of the monks in charge of the school, several of whom thanked me for having challenged the myth of the prestige school; they had tried for years to do the same, and to no effect. Did I have any suggestions for trying again? After a moment’s reflection I said, in so many words, “Next September, send the parents of every entering senior a copy of Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s pretty raw at points, but it’s an accurate portrait of undergraduate life at a high-end university and it fits right into your view of education—because in Wolfe’s telling, the bright young innocent of the title gets intellectually corrupted before she gets morally corrupted. Being told there’s no such thing as ‘the truth’ in a first-year class is the opening wedge to her finally caving in to the behavioral pressures pandemic on campus and getting abused by a hotshot athlete.” 

I don’t know whether my advice was followed, but I still commend that splash of cold water to parents overheated by the notion that “networking” (at a very high price tag) is worth the human cost of four years filled with intellectual nonsense and social pressures no young person should have to confront.  

My friends at the aforementioned University of Dallas recently confirmed my thinking with some instructive statistics. UD offers one of the most rigorous core curricula in the country in a campus climate where woke is not king (or even deuce-of-clubs), where Catholicism is celebrated rather than deprecated, and where undergraduates are transformed by a Rome semester from which they emerge as custodians of a civilizational heritage. So how do its graduates do in the competition for graduate school? In 2019, UD grads had an 84 percent medical school acceptance rate: twice the national average, 21 percent higher than Cornell in 2016, higher than Duke in 2017 or Dartmouth in 2020, and higher than Penn, Johns Hopkins, and USC in recent years. Moreover, UD was first in the country in the percentage of its math and statistics majors who later earned doctoral degrees in those fields. The numbers make it clear: The best of Catholic liberal arts education prepares students for any intellectual or professional endeavor—and does so in a far healthier environment. 

Parents and high school seniors making those tough college decisions would do well to look beyond the U.S. News and World Report college rankings and consider UD, Benedictine College, the University of Mary, Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College, and other small Catholic liberal arts colleges. By any measure, they punch far above their weight. And as a rule, they don’t graduate woke snowflakes, detached from or contemptuous about Catholicism.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Photo by Wissembourg via Creative Commons. Image cropped.


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