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

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."

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.

Presented by

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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