College Admissions 2004 October 2004

Who Needs Harvard?

The pressure on smart kids to get into top schools has never been higher. But the differences between these schools and the next tier down have never been smaller
From the archives:

Interviews: "Crying in the Kitchen Over Princeton" (September 7, 2004)
Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook on why the college-admissions process need not be a confidence-shattering ordeal.

The Late-Decision Program (November, 2003)
Most people have heard of early-decision programs. But there's also a little-known safety net at the other end of the process, to catch those who don't get in anywhere. By V. V. Ganeshananthan

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?

The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question, and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life. Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, began by comparing students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. They found, for instance, that by 1995 Yale graduates were earning 30 percent more than Tulane graduates, which seemed to support the assumption that attending an elite college smoothes one's path in life.

But maybe the kids who got into Yale were simply more talented or hardworking than those who got into Tulane. To adjust for this, Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, "moderately selective" school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income "varied little, no matter which type of college they attended." In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.

Research does find an unmistakable advantage to getting a bachelor's degree. In 2002, according to Census Bureau figures, the mean income of college graduates was almost double that of those holding only high school diplomas. Trends in the knowledge-based economy suggest that college gets more valuable every year. For those graduating from high school today and in the near future, failure to attend at least some college may mean a McJobs existence for all but the most talented or unconventional.

But, as Krueger has written, "that you go to college is more important than where you go." The advantages conferred by the most selective schools may be overstated. Consider how many schools are not in the top twenty-five, yet may be only slightly less good than the elites: Bard, Barnard, Bates, Bowdoin, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr, Bucknell, Carleton, Carnegie Mellon, Claremont McKenna, Colby, Colgate, Colorado College, Davidson, Denison, Dickinson, Emory, George Washington, Grinnell, Hamilton, Harvey Mudd, Haverford, Holy Cross, Kenyon, Lafayette, Macalester, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Notre Dame, Oberlin, Occidental, Reed, Rice, Sarah Lawrence, Skidmore, Spelman, St. John's of Annapolis, Trinity of Connecticut, Union, Vanderbilt, Washington and Lee, Wesleyan, Whitman, William and Mary, and the universities of Michigan and Virginia. Then consider the many other schools that may lack the je ne sais quoi of the top destinations but are nonetheless estimable, such as Boston College, Case Western, Georgia Tech, Rochester, SUNY-Binghamton, Texas Christian, Tufts, the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of California campuses at Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, and San Diego. (These lists are meant not to be exhaustive but merely to make the point that there are many, many good schools in America.) "Any family ought to be thrilled to have a child admitted to Madison, but parents obsessed with prestige would not consider Madison a win," says David Adamany, the president of Temple University. "The child who is rejected at Harvard will probably go on to receive a superior education and have an outstanding college experience at any of dozens of other places, but start off feeling inadequate and burdened by the sense of disappointing his or her parents. Many parents now set their children up to consider themselves failures if they don't get the acceptance letter from a super-selective school."

Beyond the Krueger-Dale research, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that any of a wide range of colleges can equip its graduates for success. Consider the United States Senate. This most exclusive of clubs currently lists twenty-six members with undergraduate degrees from the Gotta-Get-Ins—a disproportionately good showing considering the small percentage of students who graduate from these schools. But the diversity of Senate backgrounds is even more striking. Fully half of U.S. senators are graduates of public universities, and many went to "states"—among them Chico State, Colorado State, Iowa State, Kansas State, Louisiana State, Michigan State, North Carolina State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Penn State, San Jose State, South Dakota State, Utah State, and Washington State. Or consider the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 corporations: only four went to elite schools. H. Lee Scott Jr., of Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, is a graduate of Pittsburg State, in Pittsburg, Kansas. Or consider Rhodes scholars: this year only sixteen of the thirty-two American recipients hailed from elite colleges; the others attended Hobart, Millsaps, Morehouse, St. Olaf, the University of the South, Utah State, and Wake Forest, among other non-elites. Steven Spielberg was rejected by the prestigious film schools at USC and UCLA; he attended Cal State Long Beach, and seems to have done all right for himself. Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the most influential people in postwar American letters, who died last spring at eighty-seven, was a graduate of the University of Missouri. "[Students] have been led to believe that if you go to X school, then Y will result, and this just isn't true," says Judith Shapiro, the president of Barnard. "It's good to attend a good college, but there are many good colleges. Getting into Princeton or Barnard just isn't a life-or-death matter."

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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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