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

That getting into Princeton isn't a life-or-death matter hit home years ago for Loren Pope, then the education editor of The New York Times. For his 1990 book, Looking Beyond the Ivy League, Pope scanned Who's Who entries of the 1980s, compiling figures on undergraduate degrees. (This was at a time when Who's Who was still the social directory of American distinction—before the marketing of Who's Who in Southeastern Middle School Girls' Tennis and innumerable other spinoffs.) Pope found that the schools that produced the most Who's Who entrants were Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, and Caltech; that much conformed to expectations. But other colleges near the top in Who's Who productivity included DePauw, Holy Cross, Wabash, Washington and Lee, and Wheaton of Illinois. Pope found that Bowdoin, Denison, Franklin & Marshall, Millsaps, and the University of the South were better at producing Who's Who entrants than Georgetown or the University of Virginia, and that Beloit bested Duke.

These findings helped persuade Pope that the glamour schools were losing their status as the gatekeepers of accomplishment. Today Pope campaigns for a group of forty colleges that he considers nearly the equals of the elite, but more personal, more pleasant, less stress-inducing, and—in some cases, at least—less expensive. Institutions like Hope, Rhodes, and Ursinus do not inspire the same kind of admissions lust as the Ivies, but they are places where parents should feel very good about sending their kids. (A list of the well-regarded non-elite colleges Pope champions can be found at www.ctcl.com.)

The Gotta-Get-Ins can no longer claim to be the more or less exclusive gatekeepers to graduate school. Once, it was assumed that an elite-college undergraduate degree was required for admission to a top law or medical program. No more: 61 percent of new students at Harvard Law School last year had received their bachelor's degrees outside the Ivy League. "Every year I have someone who went to Harvard College but can't get into Harvard Law, plus someone who went to the University of Maryland and does get into Harvard Law," Shirley Levin says. For Looking Beyond the Ivy League, Pope analyzed eight consecutive sets of scores on the medical-school aptitude test. Caltech produced the highest-scoring students, but Carleton outdid Harvard, Muhlenberg topped Dartmouth, and Ohio Wesleyan finished ahead of Berkeley.

The elites still lead in producing undergraduates who go on for doctorates (Caltech had the highest percentage during the 1990s), but Earlham, Grinnell, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Knox, Lawrence, Macalester, Oberlin, and Wooster do better on this scale than many higher-status schools. In the 1990s little Earlham, with just 1,200 students, produced a higher percentage of graduates who have since received doctorates than did Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Penn, or Vassar.

That non-elite schools do well in Who's Who and in sending students on to graduate school or to the Senate suggests that many overestimate the impact of the Gotta-Get-Ins not only on future earnings but on interesting career paths as well. For example, I graduated from Colorado College, a small liberal arts institution that is admired but, needless to say, is no Stanford. While I was there, in the mid-1970s, wandering around the campus were disheveled kids whose names have since become linked with an array of achievements: Neal Baer, M.D., an executive producer for the NBC show ER; Frank Bowman, a former federal prosecutor often quoted as the leading specialist on federal sentencing guidelines; Katharine DeShaw, the director of fundraising for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; David Hendrickson, the chairman of the political-science department at Colorado College; Richard Kilbride, the managing director of ING Asset Management, which administers about $450 billion; Robert Krimmer, a television actor; Margaret Liu, M.D., a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and one of the world's foremost authorities on vaccines; David Malpass, the chief economist for Bear Stearns; Mark McConnell, an animator who has won Emmys for television graphics; Jim McDowell, the vice-president of marketing for BMW North America; Marcia McNutt, the CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; Michael Nava, the author of the Henry Rios detective novels; Peter Neupert, the CEO of Drugstore.com; Anne Reifenberg, the deputy business editor of the Los Angeles Times; Deborah Caulfield Rybak, a co-author of an acclaimed book about tobacco litigation; Ken Salazar, the attorney general of Colorado and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004; Thom Shanker, the Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times; Joe Simitian, named to the 2003 Scientific American list of the fifty most influential people in technology; and Eric Sondermann, the founder of one of Denver's top public-relations firms.

In terms of students who went on to interesting or prominent lives, Colorado College may have done just as well in this period as Columbia or Cornell or any other Gotta-Get-In destination. Doubtless other colleges could make the same claim for themselves for this or other periods; I'm simply citing the example I know personally. The point is that for some time the center of gravity for achievement has been shifting away from the topmost colleges.

Fundamental to that shift has been a steady improvement in the educational quality of non-elite schools. Many college officials I interviewed said approximately the same thing: that a generation or two ago it really was a setback if a top student didn't get admitted to an Ivy or one of a few other elite destinations, because only a small number of places were offering a truly first-rate education. But since then the non-elites have improved dramatically. "Illinois Wesleyan is a significantly better college than it was in the 1950s," says Janet McNew, the school's provost, "whereas Harvard has probably changed much less dramatically in the past half century." That statement could apply to many other colleges. Pretty good schools of the past have gotten much better, while the great schools have remained more or less the same. The result is that numerous colleges have narrowed the gap with the elites.

How many colleges now provide an excellent education? Possibly a hundred, suggests Jim Conroy, of New Trier; probably more than two hundred, Shirley Levin says. The improvement is especially noteworthy at large public universities. Michigan and Virginia have become "public Ivies," and numerous state-run universities now offer a top-flight education. Whether or not students take a public university up on its offer of a good education is another matter: large, chaotic campuses may create an environment in which it's possible to slide by with four years of drinking beer and playing video games, whereas small private colleges usually notice students who try this. Yet the rising quality of public universities is important, because these schools provide substantial numbers of slots, often with discounted in-state tuition. Many families who cannot afford private colleges now have appealing alternatives at public universities.

One reason so many colleges have improved is the profusion of able faculty members. The education wave fostered by the GI Bill drew many talented people into academia. Because tenured openings at the glamour schools are subject to slow turnover, this legion of new teachers fanned out to other colleges, raising the quality of instruction at non-elite schools. While this was happening, the country became more prosperous, and giving to colleges—including those below the glamour level—shot up. When the first GI Bill cohort began to die, big gifts started flowing to the non-elites. (Earlier this year one graduate bequeathed Pitt's law school $4.25 million.) Today many non-elite schools have significant financial resources: Emory has an endowment of $4.5 billion, Case Western an endowment of $1.4 billion, and even little Colby an endowment of $323 million—an amount that a few decades ago would have seemed unimaginable for a small liberal arts school without a national profile.

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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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