The cover of Time (USA) and an op-ed piece for the Times Higher Education Supplement (UK) by Erik Ringmar seem to question this. Time observes that more and more students choose to attend small private colleges, even if they are admitted into the Ivy League institutions: competition for the Ivies is as fierce as ever, but kids who look beyond the famous schools may be the smartest applicants of all. Closer interaction with teachers is an important factor in this choice.
Walter Kirn, alumnus of Princeton, writes about the Ivy League X factor:
Although Princeton had far more money and mystique, its reading lists were composed of the same books, and its students were filled with the same questions. But the students carried those books with more aplomb, and they asked their questions with more confidence. That was the Ivy League’s X factor. It bred confidence…
In the op-ed piece, Ringmar repeats his point that it’s not so much the learning experience that is valuable for students but that it’s a matter of being certified:
During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?
An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.
Even though we learned nothing at Princeton that we couldn’t have learned elsewhere, the place gave us a calling card whose impact and power were undeniable. I assume it has opened doors for me, but none of the gatekeepers have said as much.
However, the selection of students will also affect the quality of education, assuming that quality is determined by more than just the student-teacher interaction. The interaction between the students themselves, inside as well as outside classes, contributes at least as much. And considering the effort students need to do to get in, this interaction might be a bit more challenging in those institutions.