Brute-Force Prestige


The nerds have already subsumed much under their regime: social interactions, mass media, restaurant delivery, dating, books, and nearly everything else of value in modern American society, including money itself. But only now have they conquered the very definition of an elite cultural institution, one of the primary means by which today’s most privileged are minted:

Riding a wave of interest in technology, Stanford University has become America’s “it” school, by measures that Harvard once dominated. Stanford has had the nation’s lowest undergraduate acceptance rate for two years in a row; in five of the last six years, it has topped the Princeton Review survey asking high school seniors to name their “dream college”; and year in and year out, it raises more money from donors than any other university.

No one calls Duke “the Stanford of the South,” or the University of Michigan “the public Stanford,” at least not yet. But, for now at least, there is reason to doubt the long-held wisdom that the consensus gold standard in American higher education is Harvard, founded 378 years ago, which held its commencement on Thursday.

Prestige does not carry a precise dollar amount, so you cannot buy it, not directly, but you can perhaps, as the nerds have discovered over the last couple of years, brute force it. And there are so many nerds now, with so much money. The ascendance of Stanford over Harvard is of a piece with the idea that becoming a multimillionaire by going to Silicon Valley and architecting a social network that is designed in part to enrich a small group of people is inherently of a higher calling than becoming a multimillionaire by going to Wall Street and architecting highly complex financial instruments entirely designed to enrich a slightly larger coterie people in mostly well-tailored suits. They have, in other words, slowly re-engineered certain American ideals of success on a path to claiming something that they’ve never had before: cultural and political power.

In general, the ranking of colleges as an exercise may be only slightly more meaningful than not at all, but a Silicon Valley institution toppling Harvard by any cultural metric, real or imagined, means only slightly less than everything.

Photo by Jill Clardy