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Learning the definition of “prestige" on Jeopardy! really clicked for me.

Going back to the original Latin praestrigae juggler’s tricks...derivative from base of praestringere “to blunt (sight or mind), literally, to tie up so as to constrict.

>French: deceits, delusions, juggler’s tricks, 1650-60

The Gothic architecture of some campuses and the terracotta Spanish colonial buildings of others draws me in. I love seeing new science buildings with huge labs (bonus points for planetariums), small classrooms with Harkness tables that spark great discussions, dining halls with locally-sourced meals, and living/learning dorms that house individual tutoring and even career centers on the first floor. Some of these (not the architecture) are directly linked to serving students, or at least those who choose to use them. But are these elements of prestige? Prestige, as noted above, is an illusion.

Though the pleasure of huge gyms with climbing walls and other such amenities for non-athletes is not lost on me, their explosion at many schools represents a small crack in the veneer of our purest idea of a quality education. These, and the lazy rivers, private hot tubs, tanning salons, and resort-style pools with cabanas were created to conjure the mood of an upscale resort on a campus. Colleges seduce families with the trappings of paradise, masked as prestige.

But the point is not about expensive add-ons, but the value of four+ years spent at a college. Families and the media focus on how few spots there are at top universities, but colleges follow the demographics, knowing that the number of students, especially those who can afford full tuition, is declining. Colleges did their part playing the prestige card; that was the impetus for building the new athletic centers and boxing gyms years ago. But we play a role in tricking ourselves.

Is there a spot for every qualified applicant on a mid-sized Ivy-League or hyper-selective campus? When we choose to deny logic, we buy into the delusion.

Where does the conjuring truly originate--with the colleges or within us? College rankings also work their flawed magic on us (see 3/14/21 blogpost). Can we honestly think about what drives real success on college campuses?

Our students are real, prestige is not. They transform themselves and their institutions, creating what we equate with prestige (knowledge, reputation, achievement) when they engage on their campuses. Some of them may not be ready to actualize or define their version of it until they are older, in graduate school or the work world, but that’s the nature of being human. There is no magic, but there is always promise. And belief in that promise, what students will make real beyond the tricks the colleges sell or we tell ourselves, is what captivates me every time I walk onto a campus.


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