Don’t fall for the sham

This whole belief that there are about 40 colleges in the universe that are "better" than all the others?  It's a big sham.  And it's one that far too many students and parents fall for. 

I know that all 2500+ colleges in the country don't offer the same quality of education. A kid who has the intellect and drive to be accepted at Yale wouldn't have the same experience if he attended a college where he was surrounded by students who got all "C's" in high school.  I get that. 

But anyone who suggests that Yale is an empirically "better" school than Michigan, University of Chicago, College of Wooster, UVA, Mt. Holyoke, Haverford, Rice, or Oberlin is flat out wrong.  That's not just some crazy opinion of mine; there are studies that back it up. 

Non-believers should read The Chosen, a UC Berkeley sociologist's exhaustive study of college admissions.  His findings showed there was no measurable difference between the outcomes of students who attended the most selective schools and those who attended any of over a hundred schools that accepted more of their applicants. The graduates of famous colleges don't get better paying jobs, they aren't happier, they aren't more successful, their lives aren't any better, etc.

Yes, there are vast differences between the colleges that accept almost nobody and those that accept almost everybody.  But you've got to go pretty deep–deeper than 30 or 80 or even 100–down the list of 2500 schools before those differences become noticeable. 

It's time for us to ask ourselves, is our obsession with gaining admission to prestigious universities, and all the lost sleep and anxiety that accompanies it really worth it?  Is the third round of test preparation for one last try at the SAT worth it?  Are the multiple tutors to move kids from B's to A's, the clamoring to get into AP classes, the gaming of GPAs, and the measuring of kids' accomplishments based on the potential appeal to colleges really worth it?

Hard work is good.  Emotional investment in your education and your future is good.  Feeding your mind and preparing yourself for admission to a college that accepts other hard-working, intellectually curious students is absolutely worth it.  Do those things, and your life will be different because of it.

But if you're doing it all because you think that only Harvard will do and that a Kenyon education just won't get the job done, you're falling for the sham.

Beyond the bottom line benefits

A lot of the reasons you go to college have to do with the bottom line.  If you have a college degree, you'll have more opportunities.  You'll get better jobs.  You'll have advantages that can lead to more success, more money, and arguably a better life than you'd have without a college education.  Those are the bottom line reasons to attend college–a means to an end.  They're all valid.

But college can give you other benefits beyond the bottom line.

In September, 1989, I started college and met my freshman roommate, Craig.  We lived in a dorm room the size of a matchbox and have now been good friends for 21 years, ever since that day we started our college careers together.

Tonight, I'm attending his 40th birthday party. 

People who went to college reap the bottom line benefits every day.  But ask them how their lives are better as a result of going to college, and they'll likely mention very different benefits, like the people they met who are still in their lives today.

You don't have to go to a famous college to reap the benefits–bottom-line or beyond-bottom-line.  

Getting into a good college is not that difficult


Remember that getting into a good college is not that difficult.  It may not be a college that your grandmother has heard of, but you have a better choice of colleges and universities here than in any other country in the world. You might pause for a moment and appreciate that. Notice all those young people moving here from China and Korea and the Philippines and Egypt and Nigeria and other places? They know that you can get a splendid education in the United States with nothing more than a basic understanding of English and a willingness to work hard. The vast majority of colleges accept most of their applicants, and some good ones still have empty spaces in September." 

Jay Mathews
10 Ways to Survive 11th Grade

What you can learn from new college freshmen

Across the country this week, new college freshmen are moving into their dorms.  If you could see those kids, you'd notice something.

None of them are lamenting the rejections they got from schools back in the spring.  Nobody's talking about what their SAT scores were or whether or not they had 4.0 GPAs back in high school.  Nobody cares about any of that.  They're all too excited about finally being in college to spend time looking back. 

And none of the moms and dads who are helping their new college freshmen move into their dorm rooms are thinking about any of those things either. 

When you study hard and still get a ''C" on your chemistry test, or you take the SAT a third time and you still don't get the score you wanted, or you cross your fingers for an acceptance to Duke but a rejection arrives instead, it's easy to feel like your college dreams are slipping away.

But remember what those new college freshmen are reminding us this week.  At some point, you're going to be moving into a college dorm.  That's going to be an exciting day no matter what school you're attending.  And when that happens, things like your SAT scores aren't going to matter anymore. 

They next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of college admissions, when the stress is overshadowing any sense of fun and anticipation for your college future, think of those new freshmen and what it will be like when you're one of them. 

Ask Collegewise: Is this really what college admissions has come to?

Duncan asks:


I attend the parent nights at my daughter's high school,
and I listen to everyone talking about the competition for college.  All our friends keep bringing up the test preparation courses and private tutors and
college counselors they're using.  I can't help but ask, is this really what it's come
to?  My daughter is a good student but she's not at the top of her
class.  I'm wondering if I'm being naive in thinking that she will
still get into college."  

You're not being naive at all.  The vast majority of students who start college every year weren't at the top of their classes.  They didn't take expensive test prep courses, hire tutors, or have the guidance of a college counselor.  We've got over 2,000 colleges in this country and all but about a hundred of them accept pretty much everyone who applies. 

But too many kids and parents mistakenly believe that the more selective colleges are somehow better than the less selective ones.  So a lot of good kids who work hard believe that the only acceptable reward for their efforts is an admissions to one of those supposedly elite colleges.  That's why you're seeing the kind of behavior you've witnessed.  

I'm not against kids working hard and placing value on their educational futures–smart, mature kids should do that.  And I think that good tutors, test-preparation courses and college counselors can add value for some families.  But nobody's success or failure in life is determined by an admissions decision from a particular college.  A student's work ethic, desire to learn, her personal qualities and her willingness to extract the maximum value from her college experience are much more important than the name of the college she'll attend.

So, no, what you're seeing isn't necessarily what college admissions has come to be.  It's what the race for admission to the schools most likely to say "No" has come to be.  Kids and parents get to make the choice whether or not you want to participate in that race.  And I don't think it's a very healthy race to run.

Thanks for your question, Duncan.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

A change that’s coming in college admissions?

I think a change is coming in college admissions.  As more colleges become outrageously expensive, more families will ask, "Is it actually
worth it?" 

Sure, smart families have always asked that question when it came to college.  But the colleges they thought were "the best" were immune to that examination.  Most families wouldn't question the worth of attending a prestigious college.  They might not have forked over their life savings for a college they'd never heard of, but for Princeton, it was just assumed that the benefits of attending will pay the family back both literally and figuratively.  And that's what I think is going to change.  Families are going to become much more college cost conscious.  More families will consider whether the education at a private schools that costs $50,000 a year to attend is really that much better than the education a student could receive at a public university for a comparative fraction of the cost.

Other people are asking the question already.      

Washington monthly just published this article called "The Prestige Racket" that examines one college's attempts to join the rankings of the most prestigious schools, and what it's costing the students who attend. 


Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.” 

And a 23 year-old recent college grad just published his book, "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents."  Jay Mathews says,


It is the perfect antidote for those seeing the unattainable top schools
on the new U.S. News & World Report list and wondering how they
will ever be a success going to No-Name University. It is thoroughly
researched and taps the experiences of a student who investigated the
odd and often-indefensible ways college is sold to families while he was
going through the experience himself. ” 

What weddings remind us about college

Katie from our Bellevue, WA office got married yesterday. With the Collegewise counselors and the dean of admission from Katie's alma mater in attendance, this was the event to attend if you needed a little college admissions advice.

But what I noticed most was the importance college experiences played in event. All of Katie's college roommates flew out for the wedding (one of them was also the maid of honor). The groom met all of his groomsmen while he was in college. Every toast that celebrated the couple's history and the role they've played in their friends' lives mentioned something about …"back in college…".
I think it's fair to say that none of this would have happenend, none of these people would have met, even the happy couple would never have found each other, if each of them hadn't gone to their particular colleges.

These are the kinds of college benefits that you can't predict or measure. You can't ask about them during the college tours and they aren't factored into the US News rankings.
So much of what you will take away from college are the relationships you form while you're there. That's one of the reasons we believe so strongly that you don't have to go to a famous college to be happy and successful.

If I ever needed a group of people to prove that was true, Katie's wedding was it.

Ask Collegewise: What do you have against the highly-selective colleges?

Travis asks:

“It would appear that there is a consistent theme on your blog encouraging students to look away from the best colleges like the Ivies.  I was curious what it is about those schools that turns you off to them and why you think a student would be better served at a lesser college?”

First, I disagree with your premise that the Ivy League schools are “the best,” and that anything else is “lesser,” but that really gets to the heart of your question.  We have nothing against the most selective colleges.  In fact, we work with students every year who go on to all of those schools and end up blissfully happy.

What we’re trying to share with our families at Collegewise, and here on our blog, is that the famous colleges don’t necessarily offer better educations or experiences than the less famous schools. A lot of people assume that selective is inherently better, but that’s just not the case. It’s like a student saying that he will only be happy if he can date the head cheerleader whom everyone wants to date. There may be nothing wrong with the head cheerleader.  She may be smart and funny and totally deserving of her popularity. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally smart, funny and datable girls in the class.

There’s no evidence to support the assertion that students who attend highly selective colleges end up smarter, happier, more successful or better looking than those who attend less famous schools. It’s what you do while you’re in college that counts.

And the mistaken belief about the inherent superiority of highly selective colleges causes a lot of the problems with college admissions today. Kids don’t feel good about their college prospects. They feel inferior if they don’t have perfect grades and test scores. They believe the only validation for all their hard work will be an admission from one of the chosen highly selective colleges. People aren’t enjoying the ride to college like they should be.

So we have nothing against famous colleges; we just don’t think they have the market cornered on great college experiences.

Thanks for the question.  If you’ve got one of your own, send it to us at

A story of a legendary guidance counselor

Acceptance "Acceptance" (A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—And Find Themselves)" is the true story of Gwyeth "Smitty" Smith, a public school guidance counselor in a New York City suburb.  He's an inspiring example of someone who lives for his job and makes his work all about the kids.  What's particularly interesting is that he's often called "unorthodox" in his approach to counseling kids for college because he encourages students to be introspective, to think about who they are and what they really want out of their lives, and to find the right college matches, even if the schools aren't famous.  I'm not sure that approach is all that unorthodox (or rare) for good counselors, but it's refreshing to find a college admissions book that focuses on something other than the bad news about selective colleges rejecting good kids.  

Time magazine published a good interview with the author, but this part (not surprisingly) stuck out to me.  


Do you believe that there is too much of an emphasis on getting into those Ivy or Ivy-like schools in this nation? 

It's absurd that Americans have this idea that there's a small number of schools that are the "best places" for engineers or doctors or architects or teachers. The fact is, a lot of students change their major during college. The name on the gate is not the important thing. It's what the student puts into it and whether he or she finds challenging professors.

We've become a very brand-conscious society, and we have decided that in education — more than almost anything else — a big name tells us everything about quality. Guess what? At a lot of top research universities, professors are doing research, and often their focus is not on teaching. I'm a big skeptic about the allure of Ivy League schools. And I went to Brown as an undergrad, did a fellowship at Harvard, and taught writing at Dartmouth's business school. So I love those places, but I don't think you need to go to schools like that to be a success.

The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions

Here’s an interesting 2005 New Yorker article by Malcom Gladwell about the subjective nature of Ivy League admissions, the inherent elitism it breeds, and best of all, why intelligent students will do well in life no matter where they go to college.

I’m including a few of my favorite parts, but the entire article is well worth the read.

On what people believe to be true about an Ivy League education…

At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

On the role college plays in your success…

…the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your résumé opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway.

On why Ivy Leagues give preference to children of alumni…

No good brand manager would sacrifice reputation for short-term gain. The admissions directors at Harvard have always, similarly, been diligent about rewarding the children of graduates, or, as they are quaintly called, “legacies.” In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place?

On the image of the Ivy League…

The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.