Redefinition: we must crush the perception that the most prestigious universities are intrinsically superior to other universities.
From Timbuktu to Texas, from Calcutta to California, from New Zealand to New York, life for many is predicated on an ability to succeed. Of course, the very concept of “success” is nebulous, but as human civilization becomes increasingly more interconnected, the common definition appears clear: education.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), education can serve as the proverbial “water in the oasis” for many a poor person, increasing everything from life expectancy to average pay. However, in rich, developed countries, the prospect of education is no longer satisfactory–to be successful, people must attend the most prestigious of universities. Parents and students have become obsessed with attending those oh-so-desirable private institutions like Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford. In order to increase their students’ chances of getting in, parents will spend to incredible lengths, and encourage students to stack their schedules with challenging courses, and a smorgasbord of extracurricular activities. In the past 10 to 15 years, however, this arms race has its consequences, nearly all of which don’t involve an acceptance letter. Students are now overworked, overstressed, overextended in every place imaginable–resulting in everything from academic dishonesty to a lack of genuine community cognizance.
I am not the first person to notice this troubling trend. On Jan. 21, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a document to the public aimed at addressing this problem. Signed by many deans of admissions from across the nation, it promised to change the way the college admissions process is handled. Entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” this report describes the overwhelmingly insular nature of the common high school applicant, and provides suggestions for reversing this: 1) “Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good,” 2) “Assessing students’ ethical character and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class,” 3) “Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economic diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure,” (which will each be addressed separately in articles to come).
After reading the report, I find that this document is a great start, a validation of my concerns and others around the nation. But, I feel that it only touches on the central question of this entire rat race that is the college admissions process: why?
With such a huge problem, why do it? Why subject a family to such strains, both financially and emotionally?
Because everyone else says it’s the only option.
That answer seems like such a derivative answer to such a seemingly complex problem, but at the crux of the issue lies this simple belief that has been repeated by other parents, guidance counselors, teachers, institutions, for years.
The report does touch on the concept of a “best fit college,” but like the concept of success, the notion of a “best fit” is too vague–who is to say that the best fit college for a student is Harvard? Beyond the concept of “best fit,” people need to take a more proactive approach to the problem, specifically address the issues that result in the average person deeming these elite universities objectively more valuable than others. People must abolish these misconceptions.
The first misconception: private, elite universities provide a better education. Is there a more hackneyed statement harangued by boastful universities today? This private institution was ranked number one by some metric that measured some general quality, that private institution allows students unique opportunities not otherwise accessible at other universities. In terms of true education, however, many universities fall short. College is more than preparing for the adult world, more than objective jobs. As David Foster Wallace once expressed, college is the avenue in which students find their “soul”–discover who they are as both a learner and a person. According to William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale University, elite universities are worse at this secondary ability compared to regional universities. In his 2014 article for The Washington Post, he notes that “Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic.” In other words, these elite schools have become production factories that build glorified machines of students. There is no metacognition–perceived pragmatism has trumped individual exploration. In the work environment, those responsible for hiring employees do not prioritize those who have learned the robotic routine required–rather, they look for those that can display leadership, which can only be achieved through a profound sense of self. Additionally, Deresiewicz disputes the idea that the teaching at these institutions are somehow better than at other universities. “Professors and students have largely entered a ‘non-aggression’ pact […] The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be” Deresiewicz expressed. In other words, professors have no incentive to teach, and students are seen as glorified transactions, waiting four to five years and receiving an ultimately meaningless degree.
The second misconception: private, elite universities offer more bang for the buck. For the past few years, some commercials and websites have declared that private institutions provide a better quality of life in the future. In actuality, these universities are not only more expensive, and in many situations, increase the dependency of its graduates. According to the College Board, the average tuition per year at a private, 4-year university is a whopping $31,231, a number that is more than triple the cost of in-state, public, 4-year universities, which has an average of $9,139. The tuition of Ivy League schools is even more egregious, rising from an average of $46,323 in 2014, to $47,696, in 2015– an increase of over a $1,000 in one year. In addition to this increased tuition rate, most students become dependent on federal aid to pay for these expensive institutions. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, from 2007-2013, students receiving any financial aid (loans) at a 4-year private nonprofit institution increased from 86 to 89 percent, compared to 4-year public institutions, which rose from 77 to 83 percent. The difference, however, lies in the amount paid per year, which is three times more at private institutions. This cost for college does not disappear after graduation, however.
What happens when they get this degree from that esteemed university? Are they better off than before? No. In fact, many cannot pay for their loans. According to the Federal Student Aid website, the average amount of time it takes for the highest percentage of students to default on their loans (fail to pay the loan) was, on average, significantly faster among students who graduated from 4-year, private institutions compared to those who graduated from 4-year, public institutions by several years. When comparing Cohort Default Rates (CDR), the largest percentage of defaults for graduates of these private institutions was less than two years, at 13.76 percent of the total population taking out school loans, compared to 8.68 percent during the same period of time for graduates of public institutions.
In terms of cost and future prosperity, the answer seems clear–look towards public, in-state schools, which offer quality education at a fraction of the cost, both in the present and future.
The third misconception: private, elite universities make students happier. This should be the ultimate goal in looking for a college, shouldn’t it? In many ways, these private institutions seem like an idyllic paradise, equipped with an eclectic variety of students, an easygoing ambiance, beautiful sights, and wonderful sounds. In actuality, these universities are literal pressure-cookers, forcing students to view every aspect of their lives as a competition. This environment has had disproportionately high mental consequences on these students. Quinn D. Hatoff, a writer for The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s official newspaper, reported that in 2012, even the most conservative calculation results in a suicide rate that is nearly double that of the national average, with the most inclusive calculation at nearly quadruple the national average. That same year in Princeton, a survey reported by The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student newspaper, of more than 1,800 students on campus revealed that 35 percent of the students reported developing mental health issues after arriving on campus. In no way does this suggest that local, public universities are not prone to mental issues, but it does question the narrative of a happy-go-lucky environment of growth championed by advertisers for these institutions. Perfection is expected from these students, leading to deep-rooted feelings of stress and inadequacy.
Ultimately, these high school students will become the decision-makers in our society. In a world where an estimated record 20.2 million new students will attend universities in the United States this year, this reality becomes more dire. We must convince the parents, the faculty, but most importantly, the students, that there is no intrinsic, no assigned value of attending these expensive institutions. We must save the lives of the high school student, which begins with crushing the archaic notion of a prestigious university.