Cheng: The Price of Prestige

Greet the world from the hills with a hail!

by Christopher Cheng | 10/5/17 1:30am

I ran into something strange over the summer.

Growing up in Connecticut, I’d heard of Dartmouth long before I’d ever thought of college applications. I didn’t know much about it — but at least I knew the name.

Fast forward to my final days of high school in Hong Kong. At graduation, I was chatting with a friend of a friend who asked each of my friends in turn where they would be spending the next four years. “Where are you going?” she asked me last.

Up to this point, she reacted with familiarity to names like the University of Southern California, New York University and Johns Hopkins University. But when I said “Dartmouth,” expecting recognition, I instead received only a blank stare. “Where?” she asked.

Oddly, conversations like these sprinkled themselves over my summer break. When I went to a gathering for incoming students and alumni in Hong Kong, the passion I saw in these very successful graduates was one of the key distinguishing features of Dartmouth. In fact, it was the deciding factor when I selected the College. With such passion among its alumni across the globe, why is Dartmouth’s name recognition so limited abroad?

The obvious answer to the first question is size. Dartmouth is substantially smaller than USC, NYU and Johns Hopkins, which limits the number of alumni we can send around the world. Otherwise, the College certainly does not lack for alumni donations, a good metric for evaluating the gratefulness of its graduates. Nor does it lack in diversity in careers after graduation, which range from standard finance and consulting jobs to what the admissions office describes, extremely ambiguously, as “other fields,” jobs that employ 14 percent of the College’s graduates. Dartmouth even boasts a large number of well-known alumni, including former United States Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson '68 and, of course, Theodor Seuss Geisel '25.

Maybe what’s keeping us from better name recognition really is size. College President Phil Hanlon, in a statement announcing the exploration of a larger student body at Dartmouth, noted that “A larger student body would lead to more graduates, which would amplify our impact on the world.” But before analyzing this cause-and-effect dynamic between size and name recognition, let’s take a step back. Do we even really need name recognition overseas? What does it offer to us as students, and what does it offer to the school? If it has tangible benefits, is enlarging our student body really the most practical and cost-effective way to go about achieving greater global notoriety?

The most obvious benefit of name recognition comes during students’ career searches. Many students will work overseas after graduation, and increased name recognition can directly affect their chances of landing a job. But that’s not a valid or time-effective reason to exacerbate our current housing problems with an influx of more students. Many Dartmouth graduates do not even need name recognition to find success abroad, relying instead on their own talents. Some colleges and universities have had buildings donated by a slew of billionaires. The Li Ka Shing Center at Stanford University is a notable example. However, many colleges that are well-known abroad do not receive donations from academic angel investors, and there is little evidence that a causal link exists between name recognition and large building projects. Where would the College put a large new building, anyway?

Maybe we’ve already got our sights set on better name recognition. After hiring a new director of admissions who oversaw Dartmouth’s highest yield in “at least 25 years,” the College may have set its sights on worldwide name recognition as a tangible, immediate goal. The American education market draws more and more students from international backgrounds. Indeed, just 1.5 percent of students at U.S. colleges hailed from overseas in 1975; by 2015, almost 5 percent of students were international. With better overseas name recognition, Dartmouth can muscle its way into untapped applicant pools. Perhaps enlarging the College’s student body is the easiest way to accomplish that change.

Even if the College wants to seek greater name recognition — a goal of which it should be wary — the way to reach that objective is not clear. Dartmouth must be wary of paying a price that is too high: Namely, sacrificing the intimacy of its student body that is its signature characteristic. What makes Dartmouth unique is not the reputation upon which it rests but the value of its traditions and culture. The alumni I met in Hong Kong were devoted to the College. That devotion is passed down from class to class, but this devotion seems to remain overlooked by the task force, despite its claims that the College will “seek comment from all members of the Dartmouth community.” Dartmouth must move forward, but it must do so through consensus-based decision making that involves numerous stakeholders — lest the old traditions fail.