Whether you realize it or not, your schooling brands you — fairly or not — with its historic reputation in the perception of the mainstream, middling, public mind.

As a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNLI have learned to expect to hear — after people outside of Nebraska meet me and learn I went to UNL — “Oh, a football school.”

That isn’t a compliment. I understand in many minds outside the Cornhusker state graduating from a university with a rich history of football success can brand one as having a permanent football mentality where first downs and quarterbacks matter more than grades and intellect, even if one never attended any athletic event as a student or alumnus.

The fact I was an English major at UNL in a respected Department — I was the first undergraduate to work in an editorial capacity on Prairie Schooner literary quarterly — and the fact that the UNL English Department was also the genius home of Pulitzer Prize winners Karl Shapiro and Ted Kooser — as well as being the original bedrock of the indelible Willa Cather who made her mind at UNL — did not matter in the merit of the small minds of those who judged me. Football is Big Money, and so Nebraska is, and shall always be, a “Football School” first and an intellectual center second — or perhaps even third after the tractor testing program.

Football and scholarly brilliance can never be equals, at least not in Nebraska anyway, where an entire state sadly still finds its international identity and its most public, polished, persona on the gridiron and not in the classroom. When I became a graduate student Presidential Scholar at Columbia University in the City of New York Columbia— and there’s a reason Columbia adds the “In the City of New York” to its official name because there are those, especially in the Midwest, who think “Columbia” means the University of Missouri-Columbia.

I knew I was buying my way into the Ivy League by wanting to study theatre and the history and meaning of a philosophical aesthetic in the greatest city in the center of the world. I didn’t even mind, much, the high price I paid for tuition and housing because Columbia University in the City of New York gave me access to power and influence and some of the greatest minds on earth. There is no doubt Columbia helped rub away the old “Ew, you’re from a football school” glower I’d get with those who felt a UNL diploma meant I was only of the pigskin mentality.

Now people find it disarmingly charming I was trained “in both the backwoods and The Big City” and they think I have perfectly split the duality of the American Experience.

Perhaps they are right. There’s an old saying in academe that “Only The Last School Matters” and that means if you plan to press yourself into an ongoing education beyond a basic bachelor’s degree, your undergraduate school doesn’t matter much in the long view. You can save your money for a graduate school with an international, sterling, reputation by attending a less expensive public college because “only where you end matters.”

Only your final degree, those who claim to know say, succinctly defines your intellect and prowess and aptitude. We all know that isn’t true. We all know a dumbcake can just as easily graduate from Columbia University in the City of New York as from UNL, but the power of the brand, the Ivy League beating The Big 12; 1754 trumping 1869; the Lions mauling the Huskers; Low Library vs. Love Library; Morningside Heights over downtown Lincoln are all evidence of the longevity of reputation and excellence that cannot easily be overcome by pretenders to the higher education throne.

All of it adds up in the sum of it to a certain, chilling, Cudgel Effect your school can brand for you on others — or against you from others — and, yes, that doesn’t make cudgeling right and that doesn’t make cudgeling good, but cudgeling is a reality with roots in the history of a nation that has always been a sycophant for the reputation of shine and glisten over the realness of the earth and hard work.

Did you attend college?

If yes, where? If not, why not?

How do people react when you tell them the name of your college?

Did you attend graduate school?

If so, what is the name of your school, and did your graduate program have a better or a worse reputation in the minds of the middling mainstream than your undergraduate college?

47 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    I went to a “Basketball School” — Indiana University Bloomington back during the “Beer and Circuses” days of Bob Knight.
    As much as everyone loved basketball — we all liked football also, but the team was never that great compared to all of the other great Big 10 teams — I’m glad that the school is also known for its great Business, Journalism, and Music Schools.
    But, when I see the IU symbol on a car license plate, hat, T-shirt, flag, or bumper sticker, I always think about basketball. I’m sure everyone else thinks the same when they see IU or hear the name.
    My second school was Valparaiso University. Even though it has a pretty decent basketball program, it is still a small school that is known more for its academics, than its sports.
    From Wikipedia:

    U.S. News & World Report named Valparaiso University as #3 in the Universities-Master’s category for the Midwest in its annual rankings of “America’s Best Colleges.”
    It also ranked Valparaiso among the “Best College Values” based on a ratio of price to quality, and placed the College of Engineering in the nation’s top 25 undergraduate-only engineering schools.

    When I tell people I went to IU, they always want to talk about the basketball team. When I mention VU, people always talk about how it is known as the “Poor Man’s Harvard.” SeeWikipedia.
    I have to admit that when I hear “Columbia,” I always think about Columbia College in Chicago.

    With more than 120 academic programs and nearly 11,000 students, Columbia College Chicago is the largest and most diverse private arts and media college in the nation.
    The city is our laboratory. We live in 16 buildings that sit in the heart of Chicago’s South Loop, home to the Chicago Symphony, the Art Institute, and the Museum Campus.

    Maybe it’s a good thing that Columbia University includes New York in its name since there could be confusion.

  2. Hi Chris!
    Yes, you were moderated! I forgot to raise the hotlinks limit here on WP.com so you were actually appropriately caught this time.
    😀
    I changed it so we can now have 4 hotlinks without getting caught. If you have 5 or more you’ll just go in to moderation.
    Indiana is Basketball U.! I bet you get tired of that prejudgment at times, eh?
    Valpo was a smart choice! It is small enough and elite enough to allow you to define its excellence if others don’t already know the school’s reputation.
    It’s funny how Harvard is the “God Standard” of education. UNL is sometimes referred to by those who live there as “The Harvard of the Plains.” Ha! Right! The fact that your name is not “Harvard” yet you choose to invoke “Harvard” as a comparison for your importance makes you absolutely unimportant!
    I absolutely think “In the City of New York” was added on purpose because even though Columbia was first to brand the name, there have been many imitators to the throne.
    It’s even more confusing because Columbia undergrads graduate from “Columbia College” while the grad students get a “Columbia University” diploma!

  3. Hi David,
    IU Bloomington is also known as being a “party school.” When I first moved to Valparaiso, I was talking with my barber and he told me stories about how he travelled to Bloomington to party.
    See MSN’s 10 Schools That Party The Heartiest.
    See also the definition for Indiana University in the Urban Dictionary:

    1. Noun- A school where students spend more time drinking than going to class. Regarded as the greatest party school that ever existed. Home of the Hoosiers, the most beloved sports team in the history of the world. Also home of The Little 500, the greatest party week in the country, where students stay up 7 days straight, don’t go to class and collectivly drink more than most schools drink in a year. Known for their amazingly good looking females.

  4. Chris!
    Yes, “Party School” is the other insult flung around undeservedly because EVERY college and university is a party school! Kids go on to college to get away from their parents and to DRINK!
    😀
    I guess some schools hide their drunks better than others…
    I don’t know how one school can be more “wet” than another these days but quantifying it must be a lot of fun. I know no college wants to have a “party” reputation because it hurts their overall prestige but it’s probably good for the bottom line for bottom-of-the-barrel students who only want to get away from home and pay tuition to party down…
    There are a few traditional “Football U.” schools that seem to have overcome their athletic identities by training great brains as well and gaining intellectual prestige in the process:
    USC
    Ohio State
    Penn State
    UCLA
    — all immediately come to mind.
    I wonder if that’s because those schools are home to more than Just One Thing?
    In Nebraska everything revolves around football. It is the pastime and the obsession. The closest pro sport is baseball in Kansas City so all the pro and amateur wants to root and cheer and belong get directed at UNL. Even the small, independent satellite colleges like “Kearney State College” have been folded into the UofN program as satellite campuses.

  5. Hi David,
    When there isn’t much going on in a region, trying to convince people to drop huge sums of money to buy library books or fund research projects about obscure topics is hard to do.
    But, if people — some who never went to the school — can gather around in the bar, at the stadium, or just pull into the parking lot to tailgate, people will drop tons of money to support their favorite team. People who never attended a particular school are die-hard fans of the school’s sports teams.
    Valparaiso University had a good basketball team when I was attending law school and the school officials loved it because the school was getting mentioned on sports programs and covered on regional cable sports channels. Enrollment also increased as the school gained all of the free publicity sports provide.
    Having great programs is the key to a successful university, but sometimes it seems that getting money requires having a great basketball or football team.
    And, if there is no way that a professional team will ever land in a state or a region, having a great college team provides everyone with cheap entertainment and something to talk about.
    Plus, what better way to increase enrollment than to have a packed stadium, tons of good looking women on campus, and free-flowing beer! (“You can always retake the class, but you can’t make up a great party” was a favorite T-shirt from the late 1980s).
    Everyone I knew from high school wanted to spend at least a year or two at IU just to be able to party all day and all night — even if they weren’t planning to get a degree.

  6. Excellent analysis, Chris!
    You’re right that the biggest powerhouse in the economy in Nebraska is the university. From everything there flows happiness and hardship. It’s a dangerous thing to have so much money, brain power and hope vested in a single thing, but when all have is a university and its football team, you take what you can get where you find it, I suppose.
    I love that t-shirt slogan. How incredibly true!
    :mrgreen:
    I never understood the party mentality; but, then again, I never understood the football mentality, either.

  7. Dave —
    Yes, I think there are regional influences and, if you’re a school out in the Midwest, it’s probably helpful to name yourself “Columbia” in some way to let the established brand shine off on you — because your students want to be able to answer “Columbia” when asked where they attended school — and few people know enough to ask the necessary follow-up question, “In the City of New York?”
    😀

  8. Hi David,
    Check out this Google search for Columbia College.
    I’ve been thinking about writing up a Four Corners post about local institutions of higher education since it is a growth industry in our area.
    On the road I take home, I pass by four universities: Davenport University, Indiana Wesleyian University, Brown Mackie College, and University of Phoenix.
    Not to be outdone, Indiana University and Purdue University also have brand new campus in Merrillville. That’s on the way to where my new house will be built. 🙂

  9. My only association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been knowing for the last 6 years that it was your school. I therefore assumed that it must be a good place for scholarly studies because otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to it.
    The only things I think of when someone says ‘football school’ is Rutgers because it was the first school, as far as I know, where football was played. It was also, while I was there, one of the worst football teams in the country.
    Interestingly enough I have negative associations with Trenton State. My whole life I have associated it with failure and poor scholarship. I thought of it more as a joke school where people went if they didn’t get into Rutgers. I suppose I have been wrong this whole time if MD went there. How foolish I feel.

  10. Chris!
    Umm…. you left one university off your daily travels list: BOLES UNIVERSITY! DOT COM!
    :mrgreen:
    I would absolutely do an article on all those schools! It could become a great and interesting resource! I’ve never heard of many of those programs so getting your insight would be a great help!
    I’m glad you tell me when Akismet grabs you because normally throughout the day I just click DELETE ALL…

  11. Funny stuff, Dave!
    Yes, I’ve seen how those schools try to rip off the identities of the established Eastern corridor programs. There’s big money in higher education and everyone wants a slice of the pie. Have you heard of all those schools Chris passes by every day?

  12. Hi David,
    I wonder if the higher education boom is exploding everywhere else? There are more little colleges all over the place — I only listed these because they are ones that I see all the time.
    I forgot about another college that is across the street from my office in the local bank tower: Olympia College. I see their sign on the office directory if I stop by the bank.

  13. U of Phoenix is interesting. They’re sort of ill-thought of right now, but they’re on the move. They’ll probably be the first “reputable” program that offers online degrees in 20 years that won’t be looked upon with “fast money” disdain.
    What’s the “Naked Mile?”

  14. There is great money in these “higher education” institutions, Chris. You see them cropping up everywhere! Online degree programs are exploding.
    One way traditional universities are fighting the online push into their markets by online outsiders is with legislative protections.
    University of Phoenix was barred from doing any degree business in NJ by the state accreditation rule that that any school “must have a substantial library of books in the physical state of NJ.”
    Phoenix fought that rule for many years in court and lost because they didn’t have any physical presence in NJ so they were stuck – stuck, that is, until a year ago when they agreed to “rent” the library at one of the NJ universities for a yearly fee. I guess that “buy in” was enough to satisfy the legislature because Phoenix is now doing business in NJ!

  15. Chris!
    Welp… first BolesUniversity.com needs more students!
    😀
    We also need more services from Google Apps for Your Domain like docs.google.com and Blogger set up for us and other neat things they say they will add — like a rumored 30 gigs of storage space for each user is enchanting and enticing — and all of that will make us “realer” and less jittery and less football unworthy.
    😉
    It could be big or it could be a bust — I’M BETTING BIG! We’re open to all ideas, suggestions, and revenue streams!
    :mrgreen:

  16. Hi David,
    You could give lectures via podcast. One of my online businesses offers such a service. 🙂
    Boles University is a great idea. I’d like to see how it expands from its humble beginnings to dominate the higher educational system.

  17. Hey Chris!
    Yes, 37Signals have great stuff. They’re ripe for the picking!
    I was planning on implementing Base Camp here for Authors and Staff interaction but then Google Docs and the other suite of hosted apps became available without charge and I leapt that way instead.

  18. I think educational branding is more prevalent in the USA than it is in the UK.
    The elite schools are Eton and Harrow for boys and Roedean for girls.
    Universities are different. Oxford and Cambridge will always be the cream but several more are hot on their heels by specialising in certain subjects and by attracting certain pupils.
    Bristol University has the best Vetinary School, Durham and York have excellent English and arts courses, and St Andrews in Scotland became a very desirable place to be once Prince William studied there.
    I did private prep school, boarding school and then the University of Life. Shame the boarding school was known as St Trinians locally !

  19. Fascinating, Nicola! Thanks for your UK bend on this matter.
    American universities are a giant export business, no doubt. Without foreign students on the undergraduate and graduate levels our higher education mode of operation would be sorely aching for intellect and cultural drive and international diversity.
    I still remember the catcalls some of the foreign graduate student teaching assistants would get from the Nebraska kids enrolled in their classes — “We can understand his accent!” — they’d shout, thinking that would somehow get them out of assigned work.
    You’re going to have to explain the St. Trinians joke to the rest of the world!

  20. From Wiki :-
    St Trininans is a fictional school created in a series of cartoons by Ronald Searle, a British cartoonist. The school is the antithesis of the Enid Blyton-type posh girls’ boarding school, in that its pupils are wicked (and often well-armed). The teachers (or “mistresses”, as female teachers in Britain were often known at the time) are also disreputable. Cartoons often showed dead bodies of girls who had been murdered with pitchforks or succumbed to violent team sports, sometimes with vultures circling; girls often drank, gambled, and smoked.
    These cartoons later spawned a series of films.
    More here :- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Trinian's

  21. I can feel your pain. Being a Nebraskan, it puts me out when I mention it and most people only say something like, “Nebraska … you folks only grow corn and play football up there, right?”
    I work in Omaha in the IT business. I don’t live on a farm anymore, or really prescribe to Nebraska tradition as much as everyone around me. It is irksome that you can’t be taken seriously. Or that no one knows anything about Nebraska (like where it is, or what it looks like) except for the Huskers. You can live in Nebraska and not be a Husker fan.
    I living proof of that.
    (I’m also living proof that you can be a Nebraskan and not totally enspouse Republican, Conservative ideals, too)