Prestige, Exclusivity, and the Quality Myth


McCombs faculty members Raj Raghunathan and Clint Tuttle recently joined College of Education Associate Professor Noah De Lissovoy for a candid discussion about prestige — what it is and how it shapes our decisions from choosing a university or job to what we post on Facebook.

Below is an edited, condensed transcript. For the complete discussion about prestige, please listen to the full audio recording.


Moderator: What is prestige and how to people build their idea of what it is to be prestigious? For example, Teach for America and Goldman Sachs both appeal to very high-achieving, capable students, but they are wildly different. What factors do they have in common that make them both prestigious?

Raj Raghunathan: For me, prestige has to do with an evaluation that is generated by the comparison. It seems like there are two kinds of comparisons you can make: You can make a comparison with another person, and that’s called an interpersonal comparison. You feel proud if you stack up higher relative to other people, and researchers call that hubristic pride. It doesn’t always result in arrogance, but it has to do with this idea that I’m better than other people at this thing.

There’s also another kind of comparison that doesn’t get as much attention called intrapersonal comparison. It’s comparing yourself to your past self or your potential future self. It also results in pride and therefore prestige, but researchers refer to that kind of pride as authentic love.

Teach for America and Goldman Sachs, in a sense, kind of align with these two definitions of pride. They share the common feature of being the outcome of a comparison in which you come out to be superior, but what you’re superior to differs based on which kind of comparison you’re making.

Noah De Lissovoy: I think prestige is interesting because it’s hard to define in an institutional sense. It’s kind of this magical quality that seems to be associated with certain schools or vocations or firms. It’s not the same as the actual quality or substance of the experience. It’s an extra aura that circulates around the thing that attracts people and yet, it gets equated with excellence.

So a good example of this that people point to a lot is school rankings, and I’m thinking of graduate school rankings even here at UT where they’re very important. The deans are very invested in it. One key criterion to those rankings is the reputation of the school as it’s decided by other deans of other schools, right? So there’s this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy because everybody knows which were the good ones, and then they say those are the good ones, and then they get the highest score.

Clint Tuttle: Which is funny because that same ranking system always ranks certain programs at MIT as being the best, but there are certain programs that get ranked number one that don’t even exist at MIT.

NDL: It shows how it departs from reality and how fake it is. But I want to say that on another level, it’s not completely fake because people want to know which is the number one prestigious school, and they want to go there to build their portfolio regardless of the quality of the experience. [There’s also] the notion of symbolic capital. That is to say, prestige is a kind of resource that you can get a hold of. It’s not actual money, but you can use it in certain circumstances, like when you put on your resume that you went to this certain school. There’s a kind of convertibility there because you can use that to get a high-paying job.

Prestige is… very much tied to real questions of access to wealth and power, which is why it makes such a difference to people.

But here’s where I would differ a little bit about TFA and Goldman Sachs because even though these are two very different kinds of activities… the TFAers get a piece of symbolic capital that they can put on their resumes. It’s not the same as going to Goldman Sachs, but it’s very often for people who are on the way to a high status professional career of one kind or another.

CT: To give you a vague example, I know tons of people who went to TFA, and they do have a bit of prestige about them because they did something selfless, and people see that as prestigious because it’s like, “Wow, you’re a teacher. That’s so beautiful.” What’s interesting is I think that competitiveness of getting into Goldman or of being a TFA teacher is what we’ve been ingrained with, whether we are truly competitive people or not. Sometimes, that’s what makes something seem intriguing and prestigious.

Moderator: Two professors at the University of Michigan found that a $1 thousand increase in tuition at certain liberal arts schools increased the competitiveness of the application pool. How accurate is this association with prestige, and what are its merits and flaws?

RR: [It] tethers a person’s prestige and status to extrinsic, measurable, and quantifiable yardsticks. “Oh, they’re charging more tuition. That must mean they’re more prestigious.” You gravitate toward these quantifiable yardsticks because you want to make evaluations.

It’s like the story of Mullah Nasreddin, who was a Sufi saint. He was searching for something when a passerby said, “Mullah, what are you searching for?” He said, “I lost my engagement ring. My wife is going to be so mad at me.” The passerby says he’ll help look for it. After about an hour, there are 15 people searching, and they all turn to Mullah and say, “Where exactly did you lose the ring? Because we have examined every single square inch.” He says, “Oh, over there in that forest.” They said, “What? Why did you make us search here then?” He says, “Because there’s light here, and we can see more clearly.”

So it’s the same thing, right? If you can easily evaluate something, then you’ll end up saying, “Okay, this is where I want to be. This is where I can easily figure out and measure things, and therefore, it’s more important.”

NDL: Yes, [and also] these external yardsticks — achievement and prestige — are not the same thing as quality and happiness and true success and self-fulfillment. Even those authentic categories get hollowed out by this pressure for rankings and measurement.

To give an example from education… when you look at public schools, they’re entirely under a kind of tyranny, I would say, of a ranking system, an accountability system that’s based almost exclusively on standardized test scores… It affects the prestige of the school and whether they can continue to attract students or whether the school will be shut down. It affects the moment-to-moment experience of those kids in the classroom because the teacher, instead of drawing on their expertise and their pedagogical knowledge of wanting to make a creative education environment for students, is worried about what the test score distribution is going to be.

Moderator: Raj has discovered in his research that people often engage in social comparison instead of self-cultivation. Could this emphasis on social status contribute to our desire to make these comparisons?

RR: Absolutely. Like I said, if you don’t know who’s the best bridge builder or the best musician, you wouldn’t know who to identify for an entertaining evening versus actually building a bridge. So it’s useful to have that. What our society doesn’t teach us, that our educational system fails us in, is… giving people the education of not linking their self-worth and self-esteem to how they stack up. That’s a very important piece that’s entirely missing in most universities. Your self-esteem and your self-worth can be completely independent of how you stack up relative to other people.

NDL: We need to have some compassion for ourselves because this stuff is really ingrained and it goes really deep. So, [how we think about] competition invades arenas that aren’t supposed to be about that. We have the Teach for America example of the person — and this sounds hilarious — who wants to show that they’re morally superior, but I don’t think that’s too far from the truth.

Moderator: What’s the most important take-away? What could students do to offset the effects of prestige and social status on their decision-making?

CT: Take time to get perspective. I’ll give you a perfect example. My fifth year at Accenture, I was on the fast track. And of course I would be on the fast track. Why? Because it’s prestigious. I was promoted at two years to consultant level. If you’re a badass, you get promoted to manager in three years after that. So, at five years, you’re up for manager. What do you think my first goal was? I said, “Well, it’s my fifth year, so my goal is to get a promotion.” My coach asked, “Why?”

This coach sat down and asked, “Think about managers you work with. Look at how stressed they are. Do you aspire to have that level of stress?... Do you aspire to deal with the same amount of bureaucracy that they deal with on a daily basis?... What’s the number one thing that you wish you could have right now?” I said, “Honestly, work-life balance.” I was working 70-80 hours a week, and I just wanted the weekends off.

She said, “Okay, done. Now, if you get your weekends off, that means you’ll be here less, which means other people will be noticed more, and they may get promotions, and rightly so because they put in the time and earned it. Are you okay with that?” Think about that. My number one goal originally was to get promoted, but when I took an assessment and ranked the importance of that, it was actually 5th on my list.

So just know what it is that you want, and then pick the thing that’s going to give you that. If Goldman Sachs is going to be the thing that gives you what you want, then go work for Goldman. But if it’s just a great company and it’s not going to give you what you want, don’t.


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