November 21st, 2004 - Open Knowledge
Nov. 21st, 2004
11:52 pm - Who Needs Harvard?
Who Needs Harvard?
The Atlantic Monthly, October 2004
Gregg Easterbrook, Visiting Fellow, Economic Studies
Today almost everyone seems to assume that the critical moment in young people's lives is finding out which colleges have accepted them. Winning admission to an elite school is imagined to be a golden passport to success; for bright students, failing to do so is seen as a major life setback. As a result, the fixation on getting into a super-selective college or university has never been greater. Parents' expectations that their children will attend top schools have "risen substantially" in the past decade, says Jim Conroy, the head of college counseling at New Trier High School, in Winnetka, Illinois. He adds, "Parents regularly tell me, 'I want whatever is highest-ranked.'" Shirley Levin, of Rockville, Maryland, who has worked as a college-admissions consultant for twenty-three years, concurs: "Never have stress levels for high school students been so high about where they get in, or about the idea that if you don't get into a glamour college, your life is somehow ruined."
Admissions mania focuses most intensely on what might be called the Gotta-Get-Ins, the colleges with maximum allure. The twenty-five Gotta-Get-Ins of the moment, according to admissions officers, are the Ivies (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale), plus Amherst, Berkeley, Caltech, Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Pomona, Smith, Stanford, Swarthmore, Vassar, Washington University in St. Louis, Wellesley, and Williams. Some students and their parents have always been obsessed with getting into the best colleges, of course. But as a result of rising population, rising affluence, and rising awareness of the value of education, millions of families are now in a state of nervous collapse regarding college admissions. Moreover, although the total number of college applicants keeps increasing, the number of freshman slots at the elite colleges has changed little. Thus competition for elite-college admission has grown ever more cutthroat. Each year more and more bright, qualified high school seniors don't receive the coveted thick envelope from a Gotta-Get-In.
But what if the basis for all this stress and disappointment—the idea that getting into an elite college makes a big difference in life—is wrong? What if it turns out that going to the "highest ranked" school hardly matters at all?
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