The Myth of Prestige in Higher Education- A Personal Anecdote

What I am about to say will seem blasphemous for someone who works in higher education. But, allow me to indulge you in a personal story to illustrate my point.

For both my undergraduate degree and master’s I attended your typical Flagship U; a large, research-one, public institution with a mammoth sized athletic program. You get the picture. I also worked at the same Flagship U for a number of years after graduating and I am still a rabid fan of said institution’s athletics.

But last year, when it came time for me to begin the process of finding a PhD program, I learned something… an unspoken truth in higher education.

At first I enrolled on a non-matriculating basis in a PhD program at the same Flagship U- you know, to kind of test the waters. I was a full-time, professional employee at the university at the time and that meant a nice little tuition exemption. Plus it was convenient and familiar. But after taking 9 credits hours, and much to my surprise, I was woefully…..unimpressed. I won’t go into the specifics but lets just say I was underwhelmed and seriously questioning whether this was the program for me.

After some researching, and after moving on to a job at the state coordinating body  (which meant the  loss of my tuition exemption at Flagship U), I found a similar program at a regional university in a town about an hour away from where I live and work.

I’m not going to sugar coat this- I was skeptical. The collective wisdom  is that bigger, more expensive and more prestigious ALWAYS means better. Most parents will pick Flagship U over Regional U for their children, contending that the “brand name” and higher price tag will warrant their children a better education. And as a former Flagship U employee, I relied upon this notion and marketing to get students in the door.

But I decided to take a chance anyway and enrolled (again on a non-matriculating basis) at Regional U.

And this week I took my first class.

The verdict?

I LOVED it!

Not only was I impressed with the professor but I was also equally impressed with my classmates, who all seemed articulate, passionate about their research, and enthused about their program.  Granted, the usual trappings of Flagship U- the beautiful campus, the stellar computing resources, the state-of-the-art student union- are lacking and I do have to drive an hour to get to class.  But the professors are student-centered and almost all of my fellow classmates are working professionals in higher education who have a lot of real-world experience to share in classroom discussions.

While driving back home after class I got to thinking, how far-reaching is the myth of prestige in higher education? Can one acquire just as quality an education at Flagship U as they can at one of the Ivies? An Ivy education will most certainly cost you more….

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