The very best college may not be the right one

Yesterday, I received an email from a parent that really forced me to examine my own beliefs about college.  This particular student had the privilege of choosing between the UW honors, with direct admit to a very selective engineering major and with a full merit scholarship, or attending Yale or other highly selective universities, but paying full price. While my initial knee jerk reaction was Yale of course, I had to stop myself and think about the value of an Ivy League education and whether or not it was worth paying over $60,000 a year for my daughters’ tuition.

Every day, a family I meet with shares that they want their student to get into the best school they can, without any regard for what that truly means for their child. Even when I explain that numerous studies have shown that students achieve similar professional success whether or not they attended an Ivy League or a state institution, parents are not convinced. I explain that future success is correlated with the very work ethic that allowed students to be admitted to the Ivies in the first place.

Regardless of this data, this past season most of the highly selective schools saw record number of applications, with Harvard and Yale setting new lows of accepting only 6 percent of their applicants, while Columbia, Princeton, MIT and U Chicago accepted only between 7-8 percent of students. Less than a decade ago, the University of Chicago accepted 40 percent of its applicants. Other than students applying to more colleges than ever before, I continue to wonder what it is that has more students clamoring to attend these selective schools. I think we are all seduced by the notion of wanting the very best and believing that exclusivity equates with quality. I believe that families worry about their children’s economic future in light of the global society we now live in and current financial pressures. I also see firsthand that students believe admission to a highly selective school is their due, having devoted the majority of their high school days working to excel in all AP classes, while filling their plate with round-the-clock activities and service hours.

After much consideration, I wrote back to this particular parent and explained that her daughter could excel in her field, regardless of which school she chose and that professionally she might well be in the same place regardless of her choice.  I also suggested that the money she saved might well be needed for her graduate studies. At the same time, I related how much I loved Yale’s residential college system, the idea of Masters’ teas, the energy of New Haven with its ethnic restaurants and diverse student body and the chance to study side-by-side with talented students from around the globe. For our own family, those intangibles proved to be what we all remember and value most from our own experiences at Yale. As for whether or not it was worth the price, each family needs to come to that choice on its own.


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