As nearly every ambitious high school student knows, failure to gain admission to the Ivy League or to one of the nation's other top schools translates into second-class status for life. Indeed, the arrival of the much-anticipated college admissions office envelope represents a moment of truth—a judgment day of sorts when the talented, the impressive, and the worthy, are sorted from the merely average; and hopeful youngsters learn whether they are destined for greatness or for unremarkable, middling lives.
Given their obsessive studiousness, today's achievement-oriented teenagers tend to be well informed about many subjects. They may be better informed on more matters, in fact, than any generation that has preceded them. But as Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook argues in his October article, "Who Needs Harvard?," the conventional wisdom on college admissions, about which anxious teenagers work so hard to inform themselves, is for the most part dead wrong.
Easterbrook points out that, devastating as it may feel to have to head off to Rice or Harvey Mudd come freshman year after having dreamed of Stanford, in the scheme of things, the difference between attending a prestigious name-brand college or a lesser-known second-tier college is miniscule.
Consider the United States Senate ... 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 ... Or consider the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 corporations: only four went to elite schools ... Or consider Rhodes scholars: this year only sixteen of the thirty-two American recipients hailed from elite colleges. 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.
What's more, Easterbrook explains, the number of colleges offering top-notch educations has expanded in recent years, so that whereas not long ago students had to compete for spots at just fifty or so schools in order to obtain an excellent education, today there are nearly two-hundred first-rate schools to choose from—with space for every smart, hardworking student who wants one. All of which means that the college admissions process need not be the confidence-shattering ordeal that so many young people find it to be today. The hard part, Easterbook suggests, may be getting that message to sink in:
Grown-up land is full of Yale graduates who are unhappy failures and Georgia Tech grads who run big organizations or have a great sense of well-being. But teens can't be expected to understand this. All they can be sure of is that colleges will accept or reject them, and it's like being accepted or rejected for a date—only much more intense, and their parents know all the details.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic, a senior editor of The New Republic, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of many books, including The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (2003), Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt (1999), and A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1996). He is a 1976 graduate of Colorado College.