Elite Doesn’t Mean More Intelligent

By now, many have read Susan Patton’s (Princeton ’77) controversial letter to the editor in The Daily Princetonian, encouraging Princeton University women to look for qualified husband material before they graduate.

Patton argues, “As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again—you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”

The medieval sexism is certainly worth discussing. However, I want to address a less apparent problem: Princeton does not necessarily contain the smartest women or men in the country. In fact, neither do Harvard University, Yale University, or Pomona College.

All one can be certain of when describing a student at an elite college or university is that the person was able to impress an admissions officer and had some luck in the process. Students at elite schools may be smart, and even smarter than those at less selective schools. But not necessarily.

College is not a part of every smart student’s future plans, especially for those who are high-achieving low-income students. A recent study by Stanford University and Harvard researchers shows that only a small percentage of high-achieving low-income students apply to elite colleges, relative to other high-achieving students. This is largely due to a lack of information about financial aid reaching lower-income students, especially those not living in urban areas, where colleges concentrate most of their recruiting efforts.

Furthermore, elite colleges and scholarship programs have limited funds, meaning that not all qualified low-income intellectuals can attend elite institutions.

Part of the advantage for many high-income students comes from parents who leave a legacy at selective institutions. According to a study cited by the Wall Street Journal, a student with an alumni parent has a 45 percent increased chance of admission to their parent’s college compared to those without alumni parents.

Therefore, if a student has a 20 percent chance of admission, a student of equal standing with an alumni parent would on average have a 65 percent chance of admission. Many elite institutions also recruit athletes, musicians, and those with other extracurricular talents, even though these students may be academically less qualified than other admitted students.

Finally, intelligence can never be fully and accurately measured. According to the Theory of Multiple Intelligences put forth by Harvard researchers, academic institutions too often narrow in on few specific forms of intelligence, namely verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical skills. However, there are as many as eight types of intelligences. These range from visual/spatial to musical to naturalist intelligences. I do not remember any college application testing my ability to understand the natural world.

This should come as a relief to those students attending elite colleges and feeling like their time to find the perfect partner ends at graduation. It is falsely elitist to believe individuals at Harvard are necessarily smarter than students at the University of North Dakota.

I do not mean to undermine the intelligence of those at elite colleges, including the 5Cs, and I congratulate newly admitted students to the colleges. However, it seems that Patton, and others who believe elite institutions house the most intelligent students in America, need to be reminded that admissions departments are not perfect for selecting the most intelligent students.

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