There’s no easy way to say this, so I probably shouldn’t try at all. Still, I feel compelled to. You see, I’ve sat on admissions committees and I’ve written my fair share of letters of recommendation. The former (admissions committees) have a difficult kind of calculus to compute. Schools need students and their tuition money—this is, after all, the capitalist way. (Yes, there are alternatives, but boards of trustees have severe deficits of imagination.) Some schools get around this by being elitist. Generally they have endowments of very old money and can weather all but the most severe of storms. Such universities are in the minority and so the rest, and various small colleges, need to compromise from time to time. Money or integrity? You cannot serve both God and mammon.
At the graduate level this becomes even trickier. Grad students bring in more money, and getting into grad school used to (and here’s the difficult part) require what some admissions folks secretly call “special intelligence.” The paperwork and in-person interview reveal it clearly—this candidate (not always from a privileged background) displays a canniness that suggests they might really have a truly unusual ability to reason things out. This is someone who should be admitted for advanced work. But if you apply that principle not only will you be called “elitist,” you’ll also run out of lucre. The solution is simply economic—let those who don’t have this kind of special intelligence in. I have seen Ph.D.s after names from schools that I had no idea offered doctoral-level research. And they legitimately call themselves “Doctor.”
When choosing a grad program—go ahead, call me elitist, but then interview me and see that it’s not true—I knew it had to be at a world-recognized research institution. I ended up at Edinburgh, and my bubble was already deflated when I told family from western Pennsylvania and they supposed I was going to Edinboro College (now Edinboro University of Pennsylvania), located maybe 50 miles from where I grew up. I had been accepted at Oxford and Cambridge, however, neither of them could offer scholarships to a penniless Yank, but the famously frugal Scots were far more generous. And let’s face it, Scotland is more exotic than England. You have to admit that much. Of course, the deciding factor was, in my case, money. You have to wonder if there’s any possible way of escaping it. From all appearances, mammon wins.