Understanding "That's Why I Chose Yale"

If you haven't seen the video embedded above, then I strongly encourage that you do so.  "That's Why I Chose Yale" is a 16+ minute campy musical extravaganza created by recent alums and current undergraduates, funded by the admissions office - and posted to the Yale youtube channel in mid-January.  The premise behind the project, which I read on the dozens of blogs weighing in on this topic, is that the number of applications Yale receives each year had been trending downward - and so an enterprising recent grad working in the admissions office proposed that Yale reinvent the college tour video to generate some online buzz about the school.  The video has been viewed several hundred thousand times and has elicited a wide range of reactions from alumni, current students, prospective students and onlookers like me.  (Ripped of its context, I think the video is amazing, but as a brand text its existence becomes a little more complicated.)

One of the more common comments I've seen online portrays alumni who dislike the video as aloof and not comprehending that they're not the target audience.  The claim is that the students applying for a spot in the class of 2014 have been weaned on the mother's milk of High School Musical and other ironic fare - and that this campiness resonantes in a way that an older generation just wouldn't understand.  Yes, it's possible that watching hundreds/thousands of hours of Simpsons reruns and Colbert Reports, et. al. has had an indelible effect on the way young people process (joke about) the world.  But, you have to wonder if this is a compelling reason to veer so far away from the posture of exclusivity / austerity that the best U.S. universities affect.

A good friend of mine once joked that one's main goal when choosing a college should be to pick a school that won't elicit the response "Where's that?"  Obviously, choosing a college is about buying a brand name - to put on your resume and to proudly mention each time someone casually inquires about your past.  It's really astonishing how impactful the name of a good school is.  Just stand in the company of someone that went to any Ivy League school as he/she mentions this to someone who went somewhere that was (God forbid) not in the Top 50.  It's like that odd silence in the room that appears when people in low income brackets watch Mercedes commercials.

It's important to note that the Yale video asserts very few unique selling propositions.  Much like every other major, private U.S. university in existence, you will live in a dorm that has a gym, eat at a dining hall with organic/vegetarian options, join one of hundreds of clubs/activities and take lots of different classes.  Ok, maybe you'll take a class taught by a Nobel Prize winner or listen to Brian Williams speak.  Oh yes, and the common rooms have fancy leather chairs.  But, is that what determines the excellence of a school?

Well, no one really knows exactly.  At some point in the indeterminate past, U.S. News and World Reports became the authority on ranking colleges and uses a complex algorithm to quantify the quality of a school.  (Sometimes undergrads from my alma mater will call me soliciting for a donation and urge that I just give $1 a year, as % of alums donating is part of the equation.  Very odd.)  Somehow (perhaps to be discussed in a later post) this rankings system has codified the hierarchy of school importance.

Clearly the framework that U.S. News used when compiling these rankings for the first time was the accepted hierarchy that already existed.  (OK, Ivy League schools + MIT, etc are the best, what characteristics do they have?) Currently, Yale sits in the 3-spot.  And why does it remain within a 1 slot radius every single year?  Because it's already there.  It's self-perpetuating.  Hire esteemed academics, accept people with high SAT scores, keep the buildings looking Medieval and badass.  It seems like a remarkably simple process to maintain.

It's strange territory that Yale has entered into.  When your brand is all about austere exclusivity you don't tend to want it to appear accessible.  No one has ever accused these top schools of being funny or fun - and that's all part of the mystique.  (Sure there are some famous Ivy League comedians and Hollywood comedy writers, but that's hardly the essence of these schools.)  I wonder if Yale will further explore this possible new identity as ironic hipster Ivy.

In the end, will this video have much of an effect on the college's image - postive or negative?  Likely not.  But it absolutely is an interesting off-message message.


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