My goal in writing "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," which appeared last month in The New Republic, was to start a conversation. That certainly has happened, with a number of criticisms directed at my piece. My best response is my new book from which the essay was drawn, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where I go into these issues in much greater depth. I also propose a constructive vision of what college should be about—not just for the privileged, but everyone—as well as how students can save themselves from the current system and find their way to a sense of purpose.
The criticisms fall into several categories. The first asks, What’s your evidence for all these claims? Here is my evidence. I first sketched out these observations in an essay, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," in 2008. The piece went viral. Since then, it has been read over a million times—not all at once, but steadily, at the rate, after the initial surge, of about 10,000 page views a month. In other words, people have been reading it and passing it along for the last six years, an eternity on the Internet. It's clear that I tapped into an enormous hunger to discuss these issues.
To judge from the hundreds of emails I've received in response to that piece, that hunger was greatest among young people, students and recent graduates of selective colleges, almost all of whom have told me some version of: Thank you for putting my feelings into words. Add to that the hundreds of students I've met at events (often student-initiated) at campuses across the country. I've also talked with parents, professors, administrators, older alumni, and employers. Nearly all have concurred with my observations. So have many of the people who have also written on these matters—Harry R. Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, and Terry Castle, a long-time professor at Stanford, to name just two.
So that's my evidence: not systematic, but very substantial. I have spent the last six years listening, thinking, reading, and writing about these issues, on top of 15 years at the front of Yale and Columbia classrooms. I've been accused of hypocrisy for having been associated with Ivy League schools myself but wanting to dissuade others from going. But my recognitions dawned only slowly, as I realized what the system had been doing to me—and more to the point, what it was doing to the students in front of me. I feel I have an obligation to speak out.
Critics also questioned my claims about the extreme psychological stress (and distress) that the system creates. These kids are doing just fine, they say. Or: College students have always been stressed out. No, they haven't—not like this. We are putting these kids under the kind of pressure that no young person should have to endure, and a lot of them are cracking.
We already know this with respect to high-achieving students in high school. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine cites a raft of troubling statistics: “Preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families … experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country”; “As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression.” Mental health problems “can be two to five times more prevalent among private high school juniors and seniors” than among their public-school counterparts.
There is no reason to believe that the situation improves when these kids get to college, and plenty of reasons to believe it does not. In a recent survey—summarized by the American Psychological Association under the headline “The Crisis on Campus”—nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness, while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.” Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.”
The closer you are to these kids, the more you see it. Deans of students see it. Campus counseling services see it. Professors and instructors see it, at least the ones who bother to look. And the kids themselves see it, even if they don't always know what they're looking at. One rebuttal to my article by a current Yale student mentioned, in a different connection, that roughly half of that institution’s undergraduates “access the school’s mental health and counseling services at some point," without bothering to pause over the significance of that remarkable fact.
Then there are the arguments against my claims about economic inequality on selective campuses, the fact that elite higher education acts, on the whole, to retard rather than promote social mobility. Usually these criticisms take the form of, essentially, “But I had a working-class roommate!” I’ve been hearing about this working-class roommate for six years now. But this is not a matter of conjecture. A study from 2004 (things, if anything, are likely to have gotten worse by now) found that 75 percent of freshmen at the top 100+ selective colleges come from households in the upper quarter of the income distribution, 3 percent from the bottom quarter. You had a working-class roommate, and 25 affluent friends.
It is true that about 50 percent of Ivy League students receive some form of financial aid. It's also true that most of them are affluent themselves. In 2007, Harvard capped tuition at 10 percent of income for families earning up to $180,000. Still, 40 percent of kids are continuing to pay full fare. An income of $180,000 puts you in the 94th percentile of households, which means that at least 40 percent of Harvard students come from the top 6 percent. The upper class pays full tuition; the upper middle class receives financial aid; and as for the tiny remainder, “The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard," as Walter Benn Michaels puts it, "it is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.”
Another critic pointed out that only 45 percent of kids at Yale attended private high schools—a number roughly comparable to those at similar institutions. Yes, but the proportion in the country as a whole is 8 percent. A recent study found that 100 high schools—about 0.3 percent of the nationwide total—account for 22 percent of students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Of those hundred, all but six are private, and the ones that aren’t are located in places like Greenwich and Palo Alto.
Many of my critics are simply so far inside the system that they cannot recognize how they’ve absorbed the assumptions that it makes about itself. The Ivy League colleges, one of critic says, are "the best schools in America—and perhaps the world," and the students who go there "receive a first-rate education." But those are precisely the claims that are in question. What is a first-rate education, and do the Ivy League and its peer institutions deliver one? Are they, in fact, "the best"?
They are the most prestigious, yes. They are the wealthiest, for sure. Their research may be the finest in the world. But none of those circumstances tell you that they do a particularly good job educating undergraduates, and the last one tells you that they probably don't. Their professors are selected for their scholarship, not their pedagogy. They are actively discouraged from spending more time than necessary on teaching. Everybody in the academic profession knows this; the schools have just been very good at hiding it from families and kids.
I am myself the worst elitist, goes another argument. In fact, I not only blast our existing elite, as well as the schools that ensure its self-perpetuation, I call for the effective dismantling of the entire system through the creation (or re-creation) of free, high-quality public higher education, paid for by taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent. But the indictment appears to revolve around two charges.
First, that I'm discouraging lower-income families from aspiring to send their children to the Ivy Leagues. But if you come from a family of relatively modest means, you don't need to go to a top-10 school in order to rise. More importantly, we already know that very few of those lower-income kids are actually going to get in to an Ivy League school, whatever the mythology of meritocracy.
Second, that going to college to "build your soul" is all well and good for the privileged, but most kids have to be practical. Behind this lies a historical argument: In the 19th century, a liberal arts education was something that they gave to gentlemen. Now you have to think about getting a job. But the narrative omits a major chunk of American history—roughly, the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Central to higher education, and especially to public higher education, as it developed and expanded over those years was the notion that what once belonged to gentlemen should now belong to all.
Nor was it—or is it—an either/or situation: Either a general, liberal arts education or a specialized, vocational one; either building a soul or laying the foundation for a career. American higher education, uniquely among the world's systems, makes room for both. You major in one thing, but you get to take courses in others. The issue now is not that kids don't or at least wouldn't want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one (you'd be surprised what kids are interested in doing, if you give them a chance). The issue is that the rest of us don't want to pay for it.
That is finally what's at stake here. Are we going to reserve the benefits of a liberal education for the privileged few, or are we going to restore the promise of college as we once conceived it? When I say, at the end of my book, that the time has come to try democracy, that is what I am talking about.
William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, out August 19. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.