“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”
Universities and colleges have been around for nearly a millennium. As Daphne Koller explains, they started as elite institutions that admitted only a few privileged students. As the doors opened wider, education began to fuel the rise of the middle class, among other groups.
A high school diploma is now little more than a stepping stone to a higher level of education. There is little disagreement between people about the value of college, even when it requires taking on debt. Whether affluent, middle-class or lower-income, most parents hope for their children to finish college. While society says our kids should go to college, the debate entails numerous aspects like who are “our kids” and at what emotional and financial cost?
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Is elite the best way to go?
Many innovators and great thinkers to whom we owe much of our current lifestyles did not all attend so-called “elite” colleges. Some attended either public universities or schools without a brand name. And some never finished college.
My own journey to passion took longer than usual. I was a student of many places — none of which would interrupt a conversation. I like to think I am not the product of the schools themselves, but the effort I put forth to gain the knowledge and insight I did while I was there. I recall the brilliant physicians with whom I have been honored to work during my medical career — some were not admitted to an American medical school. Determined to realize their dream, they went abroad. Upon their return, they bestowed upon us amazing medical insights, thoughtfulness and passion. The name of their schools? It doesn’t even matter now.
Frank Bruni, in his TIME article “The Elite Squeeze,” examines the exclusivity of elite schools. He reports that out of 42,000 prospective applications (class of 2018) Stanford accepted only 5.1 percent of them. Compare that to its 1980 acceptance rate of 15 to 20 percent. Yale accepted about 20 percent of its 1980s applicants, but in 2014, just over 6 percent were accepted.
But are these prestigious schools really all academically exclusive? With student-body size the same and an increase in high-quality students applying from abroad — as well as those who are admitted with preference from within — generically outstanding students are effectively cut out.
In his book “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” journalist Daniel Golden estimates that at so-called elite schools, minorities make up 10 to 15 percent of students; recruited athletes, 10 to 25 percent; legacies, 10 to 25 percent; children of potential benefactors, 2 to 5 percent; children of celebrities/politicians, 1 to 2 percent; and children of faculty, 1 to 3 percent. That’s an average of 55 percent of students who were probably given special consideration at admissions.
A Harvard study showed that students with seemingly equivalent qualifications (grades, test scores, etc), legacies had a 23.3 percent better chance of college admission than nonlegacies. And if a student was a primary legacy (a parent rather than an aunt/grandparent had attended the college), the chance increased to 45.1 percent.
Elite schools – the hype, pressure and debt burden
Because the bar for academic success has become so high, solid performance can feel mediocre. This puts enormous pressure on students, family, schools and the community.
Why, despite all these revelations, do students remain pressured to pursue a brand-name school application, when a great education can be had at a variety of institutions, with a few dollars leftover for graduate school?
▪ Marketing: Students can easily access college rankings, but the value associated with a school has become heavily based on its acceptance rate rather than its value. A mainstream acceptance rate does not necessarily preclude a quality education and vice versa.
▪ Digital applications: With digital technology and the Internet, applying to colleges is much easier. Students don’t have to type out individual applications. In fact, the Common Application — a single electronic form submitted along with specific supplements — can be sent off to most if not all of the colleges a student is interested in.
Despite the challenges of getting into an exclusive school, Bruni says that a high-quality education has never been easier to find. The key, he says, is to focus on unique course offerings or campus diversity — and less on the school name.
Is college for everyone?
Political scientist Robert D. Putnam, in his book “Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis” says the American dream has always been about opportunity — the opportunity to receive a quality education, work hard and achieve prosperity. Americans do believe that all kids should have a decent chance to improve their lot in life, but who, how and if they get there is another story. Every spring, after receiving acceptance emails, millions of high-school seniors spend days deliberating their choices — and their parents begin to panic. They should all take a breath: It doesn’t much matter where you go to college. What matters most is not where you go, but how you go and that you finish.
Some of the great debates over higher education, as outlined by David Leonhardt, editor of The New York Times Upshot, are centered around the idea of whether college is for everyone. Who should go to a four-year college, a community college, or vocational school? Is an elite school worth the money? How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? These questions and more depend on whether students are wanting and capable of higher education.
Two recent academic studies tracked thousands of graduates who had landed on the different sides of the admissions cutoffs — whether they made the GPA and SAT score cutoff or not. Leonhardt says these cutoff bars are typically set by less selective colleges. Students who made the cut were admitted while many of the marginal students who didn’t did not pursue a four-year degree.
But when you examine the numbers, students who score an 830 are essentially the same as those who score an 840. Leonhardt says when the number becomes the defining factor for college admission, meaningful estimates of the true effects of college can be made. To no surprise, a four-year college experience brings considerable benefits to “marginal students.”
The most significant benefit to those who scored just above the admissions cutoff and earned a degree is that they ended up earning substantially more by their late 20s compared to students who fell just below the cutoff mark and did not get a degree — 22 percent more earnings on average.
For many students, especially those who don’t meet the cutoff or simply aren’t interested in pursuing a four-year degree, enrolling in a community college may be a better economic choice. Community colleges provide better vocational training for well-paying trade and “maker” careers like welders, medical/tech assistants, plumbers or electricians — none of which require a bachelor’s degree and all of which are in high demand.
Stretching vs undermatching
These same studies also showed that students who started on the more challenging four-year track could transition down to gain a two-year degree, but most who started in community college struggled more to achieve a four-year degree. This might suggest that students do better when they stretch themselves and attend a more selective college, rather than undermatch themselves by choosing a “less selective” college than their academic ability.
What is a good college education?
Most college applicants do not have an idea of their future path. College is a time of exploration. However, many parents and students often become focused on an elusive pot of gold so much so, they miss out on the unique and rewarding educational opportunities that exist to provide intellectual and emotional growth.
A Brookings Institution study found that for the majority of students, the most important factor in long-term success is getting the degree — not where it’s earned. However, the study also showed that for low-income and first-generation college students, the networking and personal attention provided by an elite college can make a difference. These students are 13 percent more likely to graduate in six years from a private institution than a public one.
In his book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” Bruni describes a variety of schools that utilize off campus sites to expose students to situations not afforded in a classroom. Monmouth University in New Jersey offers a behavioral-psychology course that takes place largely among the land and sea mammals at the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement and safari park. St. Lawrence University in New York offers a course on survival skills and environmental philosophy. Its dormitory of yurts (cylindrical Mongolian tents) in the Adirondack wilderness provides no electricity and no Internet.
So if middle-class kids are being pushed toward exclusive schools, are we doing them a favor? We may not be. In fact, we may be setting them up for disappointment or shame, and maybe suggesting some questionable values. American schools are top notch. Not only do many host great talent and participate in cutting edge academia, they offer endless possibilities to explore learning in a multitude of settings. One just has to look beyond the maddening crowd.
Students who are steadfastly committed to getting into one of those schools need to remember that the purpose of a higher learning institution is to allow them to achieve and live to their fullest. Their college choice has less impact on identity, success and happiness than they think. Just because everyone may be buying a Lexus doesn’t mean another type of car won’t get you where you want to go — or beyond.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.