In 2014, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote a bombshell article called “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” in the New Republic. It slammed the prevailing wisdom that getting into an elite private school should be everyone’s idea of success and fulfillment. He also wrote a book called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Fulfilling Life, which further expands on his criticism of all things Ivy. He made the following points about why students should reconsider their Ivy-obsessed choices (which really, are relevant to the the 100 most elite schools in the US:
Students who make it to these schools are almost preternaturally afraid of risk. They’ve learned to game the system; that is, they know what their high school teachers want on assessments, and they are expert at parroting it back to them. They’re excellent at memorizing facts and formulas, and they pay careful attention to the way teachers want them to structure an essay or create a presentation. They don’t deviate from the rules, and they don’t think outside the box. They are desperately afraid of failure, because they know what an A means, in terms of their chances at elite school admissions. They’re not going to flunk a math test in order to come up with more creative code for their comp sci project, and they’re not going to spend extra time in the art studio at the expense of their multiple-choice history test. That’s why Deresiewicz calls them “excellent sheep”. In short, they are boring and bland and secretly lack the intellectual passion and curiosity that makes a real scholar. But they sure are good at earning praise for “coloring within the lines”! They’re earnest and hard-working, but the problem is that to move the state of ANY field - medicine or entrepreneurship, art or engineering - forward, you have to be someone filled with fire and desire….and the willingness to take risks.
Because these schools are so expensive (upwards of $72,000 and climbing as of this writing), students and their parents desperately want a good return on their educational investment, in the form of a career that will earn them more than they shelled out, as quickly as possible. For this reason, vast numbers of students at elite schools who thought they were going into relatively low-paying jobs such as social work, public health, and academia, for instance, instead turn mostly to finance, investment banking, and consulting in vast droves. This creates an even wider disparity of income in the US between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else, and means that all that fancy education goes not toward the betterment of their fellow citizens, but to the accumulation of their own personal wealth.
Especially in a time of recession, when schools’ endowment values and alumni donations are tanking, these schools just aren’t going to let in more than about 15 percent of low-income students. Nor do the federal student aid formulas or the schools’ own algorithms for calculating financial need make it possible for anyone but the upper class to attend. As Deresciewicz points out, “Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole.” They can’t afford to - they need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor base - and it’s not even clear that they’d want to.” Don’t believe him? Harvard’s endowment is worth more than $40 billion, which means it’s throwing off about $150 million in cash a year. Hence, Harvard doesn’t really need to charge tuition for most of its undergraduates..but it does anyway.
So what kinds of students do you get at elite schools? Mostly jocks and entitled rich kids, with a smattering of low-income students. One of my favorite higher ed writers is Frank Bruni of The New York Times. In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, he notes that 34-75 percent of seats in each freshman class are generally gone before your average kid even applies, due to what are called institutional priorities. Some priorities are reasonable: the goal of overcoming decades of institutional racism and inequality by giving admissions priority to underrepresented minorities and students who represent the first generation in their family to go to college. But most institutional priorities are designed to protect the schools’ financial well-being and media profile by admitting great numbers of D1 athletes who will bring glory to their sports teams (and thus millions of dollars in alumni donations, ticket sales, and media rights), prestige (celebrity and politicians’ children), or new buildings and infrastructure (7-figure parent donors). So if you’re none of these things and can’t afford the price tag, you’re mostly SOL.
Oh, and by the way, the following elite schools don’t give ANY merit aid….or at least not any that they are advertising or give on a regular basis. Why should they? They are blessed with many more times the number of applicants than they can admit. So the line they use is that, “We don’t give any merit aid at all, because ALL of our admitted students deserve it.” How convenient.
Amherst College, Cornell University, Princeton University, Barnard College,Dartmouth College, Reed College, Bates College,Saint John’s College, Bennington College,Hamilton College,Sarah Lawrence College,Bowdoin College,Harvard University,Stanford University,Brown University,Haverford College,Swarthmore College,Bryn Mawr College,Julliard College,Trinity College (Connecticut),Bucknell University, Marlboro College,University of Pennsylvania,Colby College,MIT,Vassar College,Colgate University,Middlebury College,Wellesley College,Columbia University,Mount Holyoke College,Wheaton College (Mass),Connecticut College,New England College,Williams College, Yale University, Franklin and Marshall College
This next bit of rationale comes from Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. In one of his chapters, he tells the tale of a young woman who had aspirations to become a doctor, yet gave them up when she attended an Ivy and realized she wasn’t as good as she thought. Since everyone there was just as talented and capable as she was, her self-esteem suffered, and in a bout of depression, she gave up her pre-med dreams. If you look at the epidemic of depression and anxiety on elite campuses these days, you’ll see that this young woman was hardly alone. But common sense alone should dictate that you don’t win prizes by competing against the toughest field of contenders possible. If, for instance, you want to win a foot race with other students your age, why would you possibly race against Olympic foot race contenders? So it is with academia. For example, I have it on great authority that U.S. medical schools tend to take only a handful of students from each US college or university. Maybe they take 7 from Harvard and only 2 from Ohio State, but hey, do you think it’s harder being the #7 student in your class at Harvard or the #2 student in your class at Ohio State? If your goal is to be at the top of your class in order to get a plum job offer or win a spot at a prestigious graduate program, why would you possibly attend an Ivy League school as an undergraduate? (ESPECIALLY since you can usually earn a PhD there for free!)
And here’s where I’m going to add a few observations of my own:
Your chances of getting into the Ivies or “quasi-Ivies” (think Williams, Amherst, Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt, MIT, CalTech, etc) are virtually impossible UNLESS you are one of these things:
A member of an underrepresented minority
A highly sought-after D1 athlete in a spectator and/or Olympic sport
A member of a family where Mommy or Daddy are going to buy your way in
A child of a celebrity or politician
A child of an (ideally wealthy) alumnus or alumna
A student with NATIONAL OR INTERNATIONAL recognition in a particular academic or extracurricular field. So if you don’t fit one of these criteria, applying to more than one of these viciously competitive schools is a recipe for disappointment and a blow to your self-esteem. Why would you do that to yourself, not to mention lose about $100 per school of your hard-earned money in application fees?
Are you aware of the nefarious admissions game these schools play with you, as a result of your rabid desire to get into one of these schools? Note that virtually all elite schools have two admissions deadlines: 1) a regular decision deadline and 2) a BINDING early decision deadline. Admissions rates are considerably higher for these schools if you apply early, and almost infinitesimal if you don’t. So the schools are putting you in an actual bind; either you apply early and commit in writing to attend...or you don’t have a chance in hell. But since you are commiting to attending if you are accepted, this means there is no incentive for these schools to offer you an optimal financial aid package. You are already a captive audience, so why give you a discount? For the schools, early decision is a win-win; you represent a guaranteed 100 percent yield AND you are going to pay top dollar.
Of course, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford don’t offer an early decision admissions policy; instead, they offer a “restrictive early action/single choice early action” deadline that means you can only apply to ONE school early. If you get in, you are not bound to attend the school, as with early decision, BUT you are prevented from applying to ANY other schools early (even those with non-binding early action deadlines), which pretty much guarantees that you’ll go to your REA school, since you won’t have any other possible options until March, and those are almost certainly to be acceptances to lower ranked schools.
The Fiske Guide to the Colleges tells us that Harvard University sometimes receives complaints from its undergraduate students that their professors are sometimes relatively inaccessible. If you think about it, that makes sense. Harvard employs faculty who are top in their fields, which means they spend substantial amounts of time researching, publishing their research findings, and talking to others throughout the world about their research findings at academic conferences and the like. They also often spend a lot of time teaching their graduate, as well as undergraduate students. All professors are busy, but professors who are celebrities in their particular fields are insanely busy. Given their other important commitments, undergraduate students are sometimes their last priority. The same holds true at flagship public universities like University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, or University of Texas at Austin. At UC Berkeley, for instance, the only parking spots on campus are reserved for “NLs”; that is, professors with Nobel Laureates. But don’t be hoodwinked into thinking you will actually get to interact with these “NL” professors in person; they are usually far too busy for lowly undergraduates. So what use is it, then, to you that these exalted folk presumably walk around campus? They lend prestige to the institution for sure, but they don’t necessarily make the academic education you are paying for any better.