I was born and raised in Roanoke, Virginia, a medium-sized city in the Blue Ridge mountains. It is not the sort of place that produces many Ivy League graduates. Only ten kids in my high school class of 500 crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for college, for example. I went to Yale. I chose to move back home anyway. I now serve as the academic director of an independent high school I helped to found, a school that aims to provide a progressive preparatory education for kids from all backgrounds. As such, I have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of families—very few of whom share the prejudices William Deresiewicz assumes in his recent essay for The New Republic, "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."
I don’t know many people who think it will be the end of the world if their child doesn’t attend an Ivy. Around here, I have my hands full explaining that it might be beneficial to attend a summer language academy, or that looking only at colleges within a two-hour drive might disadvantage a child. I suspect that my experience is the more common one in America, if not among the New Republic’s assumed readership. For families like the ones I serve, the article seems misplaced to the point of destructiveness.
Deresiewicz makes and then bungles two essential claims. The first is that the American college system’s admissions process is reductive and occasionally brutal. The second is that far too many students at our nation’s most selective institutions are going into finance.
From the latter point, Deresiewicz concludes that the Ivies don't engage students or teach them to be more curious, to take risks or fail. Perhaps, but the recent reduction in job security, working conditions, prestige, and salary for the professions he cites as neglected by Ivy Leaguers—clergy, professors, social workers, teachers and scientists—accompanied by the rapid inflation in the same for Wall Street would be an alternate explanation. It is not Yale’s fault that our society at large has radically devalued the professions Deresiewicz and I prefer, and it is not at all evident to me from the limited data he presents that the education is the cause. In fact, there is some correlation between the percentage of students going into finance and the rise in generosity of financial-aid awards at need-blind institutions; maybe graduates are going into fiscally rewarding jobs precisely because they came from poorer backgrounds.
As for the former point, I am only able to offer my own counter-anecdotes. After more than a decade of working with admissions offices, I feel them to be at least somewhat representative. Many elite schools in the United States, in which I include those Deresiewicz counts as second tier and those as inundated by applications as the Ivies, have relatively large and considerate admissions staffs, and aren't as easily buffaloed by rich kids’ made-to-order summer trips and falsely inflated lists of extracurricular accomplishments as he implies. I routinely get calls from admissions officers from these kinds of schools, to discuss at greater length the unusual applicants whose biographies don't follow such a pattern. Those officers tell me that they want exactly the sort of students Deresiewicz implies that they don’t, curious oddballs who have taken risks and learned unusual things. They're expressly searching for people who are not, to quote the article, “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s].” I do not get the same feedback as often from other kinds of schools, especially state institutions which cannot afford to hire or retain qualified admissions staff in the same numbers.
Having said that, it is reductive to suggest that the elite schools in America are monolithic in practice or philosophy. Deresiewicz’s central offense, perhaps, is to suggest that they are—and worse, that smaller “religious colleges” (does he mean Wheaton? Earlham? Southern Methodist? Patrick Henry? Notre Dame?) are as well.
One of Deresiewicz's central contentions, that students at elite institutions are particularly emotionally dislocated and wayward, is presented with two kinds of evidence. The first is anecdotal and personal with no counter-examples of peers from lower profile institutions, or from outside of higher education altogether. The second is a glancing mention of what I assume was the survey "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010," which did not appear to disaggregate data by selectivity at all. ("A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history," Deresiewicz writes.) One wonders, does he know other 18-21 year olds? My own experience suggests that thoughtful, curious people in this age group are widely prone to confused self-loathing no matter where they are.
Most of my friends today are not Ivy League graduates. They are, like most middle class people in America not in the trades, graduates of lower-profile liberal arts colleges and state universities. The ones with whom I have discussed this article are unanimous on that last point: They all felt like they were wandering around with no clear direction at that age and object to the premise that that is a special property of the Ivy Leaguer. They are also unanimous on this point: they are proud of their educations, but do not conclude from that pride that an Ivy League education is “overrated” in comparison.
I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can. I don’t believe the Ivies are for every bright kid, and I have occasionally counseled students capable of admission to them to favor other options. And I agree that class lines are hardening in dangerous ways; the Ivies have too much money and power; and meritocracy is a delusion. That does not mean that an Ivy League diploma isn’t valuable, especially for someone whose family has no history of access to elite careers like teaching at Yale or writing for The New Republic. It means that it is valuable. Whether it should be is another discussion altogether.
J.D. Chapman is academic director and co-head of Community High School in Roanoke, Virginia.