Keeping Perspective on Selective College Admissions

Theresa, a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in ages, called me the other day.  We talked for a long time.  Her son is a sophomore in high school.  As his doting mother, Theresa is in a lather about his prospects for college admission.

As we hadn’t spoken in quite a while, Theresa asked me about my philosophy about college admissions.  She wanted to know what I thought were the quality colleges.

Theresa is an educator at a major state university.  I asked her what good education looks like, in her professional opinion.  She responded, predictably, that good education is all about what happens in the classroom between a well-prepared, knowledgeable, caring, and enthusiastic instructor and the willing, capable, and hard-working student.

Moral of the story:  education is not about an institution.  It is a process that occurs between teachers and students, primarily.  It is about learning, not about prestige.

The sad fact is that many of the most prestigious, Gotta-Get-In colleges do not deliver the best quality education—based on this bare-bones definition.  They deliver a lot of atmospherics and ivy and Nobel Prize winners and fantastic facilities (for graduate students, anyway).  But what happens in the classroom is not necessarily the priority of every Gotta-Got-In institution.

Theresa and I bandied these ideas around for quite some time, and we shared some interesting personal insights about our own educational experiences…both as students and as teachers.

A few hours after we hung up the phone, I came across an article written by Gregg Easterbrook, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly who has been a fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He wrote an article for Brookings in 2004, entitled “Who Needs Harvard?

I recommend it to my readers who want a glimpse of how I think about prestige and the Gotta-Get-In colleges.  I don’t think Harvard and the rest of the top 25 most selective colleges are all bad:  I attended one and taught at another, and I’m proud of my associations with both.  Furthermore, several of the top 25 are truly outstanding—places I might be delighted to see my kids or my nieces and nephews attend.

What I decry is the notion that entry into the top 25 becomes a life-or-death pursuit for many kids—and their parents.  We all must keep things in their proper perspective:  an excellent education can be had a literally hundreds of institutions around the country.

And the quality of a student’s education has much more to do with the initiative, intelligence, and focus of the student than with the quality of the institution she attends.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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  1. This article is really interesting, and I agree with most of the points – especially that the quality of an education is not necessarily directly determined by a school’s prestige. However, if a person is pursuing a college education in order to have a successful career, isn’t there some truth to the idea that a degree from, say, Yale, would carry more influence in the job market? I certainly discovered this was so when I thought I wanted my PhD in history. The academic job market is over-saturated with history PhDs, and as such, you’re more likely to get a tenure-track position somewhere if you’ve got a degree from an Ivy-League school

  2. Hi Jessica. Thanks for your comments. The idea that a prestigious university guarantees a “successful career” is overblown. I think it true that most Ivy League grads are given a second look early in their careers by employers, based on the assumption that the candidate has been reviewed and vetted somehow by their Alma Mater. However, after a few years, the patina of the diploma wears off, an people are judged by what they do, what they accomplish. At the same time, there are plenty of folks (millions and millions) who do not attend highly selective colleges who enjoy highly successful and lucrative (and satisfying!) careers.

    That said, there is perhaps one profession in which the name on the diploma means something more: academia. You are absolutely correct that where one does one’s doctorate will have a strong bearing on your career path–if you choose to pursue a career is a professor and scholar. Yet even in this rarefied world, the institution makes less and less impact as time goes on. The name on your diploma means less when you apply for your sixth job after graduation than it did when the ink was still damp.

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