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Frenzy Over Elite College Admissions

The fall semester is just a few weeks old, but already the craziness to get into marquee-name schools is in full bloom. I was reminded of this after reading questions submitted by readers to Janet Rapelye, the dean of admissions at Princeton University ("Guidance Office | Ask Princeton's Dean About College Admissions," The New York Times, Sept. 19). There is a sense of desperation that I have never seen before and that I cannot understand.

Let me begin by stating that I received a B.A. from an Ivy League university with distinction. I say that upfront to dispel any notion that I'm envious. I had a great education at a time when it was quite affordable. I'm forever grateful for the experience. But I hasten to point out that a degree from an Ivy League school or from any equally selective school is not what many parents and their children believe it is. Aside from bragging rights, I think there are many misconceptions about the superiority of the education students in these schools receive.

As in all prestigious universities, publication continues to be the primary basis for getting tenure. It's true that they have given a bit more weight to teaching in making their consideration, but the situation has not fundamentally changed. As a result, students too often are taught by teaching assistants or by famed professors who are pedagogically inept ("Academia's Crisis of Irrelevance," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 20, 2011). How would parents and students feel if they knew beforehand who will be teaching undergraduate classes? In other words, if the quality of instruction is uppermost in their minds, they'd be better off choosing small colleges, where there is less pressure on the faculty to publish. It's not that these schools are necessarily any easier to get into, but at least once students are admitted, they will get what they thought they paid for. This is known as truth in advertising.

The more important question is what a degree from the Ivies and the like will mean after graduation. All things being equal, which they rarely are in life, a gold-plated degree will open the door to a well-paying job, but it's what has been learned that determines subsequent events ("Is an Ivy League Diploma Worth It?" The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2011). Unfortunately, there's no assurance that the degree relates to knowledge. For example, graduates of Harvard University have written that it's quite easy to spend four years there, get an inflated grade and graduate without learning much of lasting worth ("The Truth About Harvard," The Atlantic, Mar. 2005).

What I'm suggesting, therefore, is that sweating out getting into elite schools is not worth it. It's altogether possible to get a first-class education at a second-tier college or university, and go on to a gratifying career. Remember that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant (The Sheepskin Psychosis, Delta, 1963).

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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