Who Needs Harvard?
for the Ivies is as fierce as ever, but kids who look beyond
the famous schools may be the smartest applicants of all
Copyright © 2006 Time Inc. All rights
March 13, 2006
BY NANCY GIBBS, NATHAN THORNBURGH
With reporting by With reporting by Anne Berryman/ Athens,
Jeremy Caplan, Nadia Mustafa/ New York, Theo Emery/ Nashville,
Leron Kornreich, Jeanne McDowell/ Los Angeles, Michael Lindenberger/
Louisville, Constance E. Richards/ Asheville, Leslie Whitaker/
It's the summer before your senior year, and
you're sweating. The college brochures are spread across the
table, along with itineraries, SAT review books, downloaded
copies of Web pages that let you chart the grades and scores
of every kid from your high school who applied to a given
college in the past five years and whether they got in or
not. You're hunting for a school where the principal oboe
player is graduating, or the soccer goalie, so it might be
in the market for someone with your particular skills. You
can be fifth-generation Princeton or the first in your family
to apply to college: it's still the most important decision
you've ever made, and the most confounding.
You're a parent watching your child, so proud,
and so worried. Your neighbors' son was a nationally ranked
swimmer, straight As, great boards, nice kid. Got rejected
at his top three choices, wait-listed at two more. Who gets
into Yale these days anyway? Maybe they should have sent him
to Mali for the summer to dig wells, fight malaria, give him
something to write about in his essay.
You're the college counselor at a public school
in a hothouse ZIP code, and you wish you could grab the students,
grab the parents by the shoulders and shake them. Twenty thousand
dollars for a college consultant? They're paying for help
getting into a school where the kid probably doesn't belong.
Do they really think there are only 10 great colleges in the
country? There are scores of them, hundreds even, honors colleges
embedded inside public universities that offer an Ivy education
at state-school prices; small liberal-arts colleges that exalt
the undergraduate experience in a way that the big schools
can't rival. And if they hope to go on to grad school? Getting
good grades at a small school looks better than floundering
at a famous one. Think they need to be able to tap into the
old-boy network to get a job? Chances are, the kid is going
to be doing a job that doesn't even exist now, so connections
won't do much good. The rules have changed. The world has
changed. You have a sign over your office door: COLLEGE IS
A MATCH TO BE MADE, NOT A PRIZE TO BE WON.
"In my generation," says Bill Fitzsimmons,
the dean of admissions at Harvard, "America wasted a
lot of talent." Applying to college was less brutal mainly
because "three-quarters of the population was excluded
from these types of schools." Now 62% more students are
going to college than did in the '60s, when Fitzsimmons was
a Harvard undergrad, and while many of them head off to state
universities and community colleges, the top schools are determined
to tear down barriers to entry for the brightest of them.
Admissions officers from Harvard, Yale and Stanford weave
their outreach tours through low-income ZIP codes and remote
rural areas, starting new summer academies for promising candidates
and waiving their tuition if they do make it in. Harvard's
class of 2009 included 22% more students from families who
earned under $60,000 than the class of 2008. Like many other
colleges, Harvard also gives some preferences to well-connected
applicants like legacies (the children of alumni), but Fitzsimmons
says his school is making a statement with its broader outreach.
"The word has gone out that if you are talented, the
sky is the limit," Fitzsimmons says. "If we don't
take advantage of that energy, America will languish."
The math is simple: when so many more kids are
applying, a smaller percentage get in, which yields the annual
headlines about COLLEGE ADMISSIONS INSANITY. Princeton turned
down 4 of every 5 of the valedictorians who applied last year,
and Dartmouth could have filled its freshman class with students
with a perfect score in at least one SAT subject and had some
to spare. But in the meantime, partly as a result, partly
in response to all kinds of social and economic trends, the
rest of the college universe has shifted as well. The parents
may be the last ones to come around--but talk to high school
teachers and guidance counselors and especially to the students
themselves, and you can glimpse a new spirit, almost a liberation,
when it comes to thinking about college. "Sometimes I
see it with families with their second or third child, and
they've learned their lesson with the first," observes
Jim Conroy, a college counselor at New Trier High School in
Winnetka, Ill. Their message: while you may not be able to
get into Harvard, it also does not matter anymore. Just ask
the kids who have chosen to follow a different road.
Small Is Beautiful
The apostle of the alternative way is a white-haired,
bespectacled former education editor of the New York Times
named Loren Pope, whose book Colleges That Change Lives is
the best-selling admissions guide, ahead of A Is for Admission:
The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other
Top Colleges. He lays out all the ways in which the past 30
years have smiled on smaller schools. With rising prosperity,
their endowments have grown. The number of Ph.D.s doubled
from 1968 to 1998, meaning a deeper pool of professors to
choose from. And in some ways the small schools gained an
advantage over their prestigious rivals: after Sputnik, many
colleges became research universities, "and smaller has
been better for undergraduate education ever since,"
Pope says. "At big research universities, professors
spend more time researching than teaching."
In a kind of virtuous circle, the "second
tier" schools got better as applications rose and they
could become choosier in assembling a class--which in turn
raised the quality of the whole experience on campus and made
the school more attractive to both topflight professors and
the next wave of applicants. "Just because you haven't
heard of a college doesn't mean it's no good," argues
Marilee Jones, the admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and an outspoken advocate of the idea that parents
need to lighten up. "Just as you've changed and grown
since college, colleges are changing and growing."
Once students start Looking Beyond the Ivy League--the
title of another Pope book--they see for themselves the advantages
that can come with an open mind. They find a school that lets
students work with NASA on deep-space experiments, or maintains
a year-round ski cabin or funds a full year of traveling in
the developing world. Schools once derided as "safeties"
stand taller now, as they make the case that excellence is
not always a function of exclusivity. Some kids end up getting
into Harvard and then turning it down because of the $30,000
tuition or the lecture-hall class sizes or because in the
course of the hunt they conclude that they would fit better
elsewhere. And in making their choice, they get to make their
own statement about what is important in an education, and
even teach their parents some lessons.
Investing in the Future
Given the changes in the economy as well as
the academy in the past 20 years, advocates for smaller schools
argue that they give students a sharper competitive edge.
"What most parents are concerned about is providing the
best security for their child," says Gay Pepper, head
of college guidance at Greens Farms Academy, a private school
in Westport, Conn. "Some see going to a brand-name college
as providing that security. We have to shift that thinking.
A college that is right for the student is the best form of
There's growing evidence to support that claim.
The Quarterly Journal of Economics published a study in 2002
showing that students who were accepted at top schools but
for various reasons went to less selective ones were earning
just as much 20 years later as their peers from more highly
selective colleges. Much of the old-boy networking value has
diminished in an increasingly performance-based economy: only
seven CEOs from the current top 50 FORTUNE 500 companies were
Ivy League undergraduates. In an economy in which people typically
change jobs seven or eight times and new fields open up all
the time, Pope notes, "connections won't do a whole hell
of a lot of good. It's your own specific gravity, not the
name of the school, that matters."
For students aspiring to go to graduate school,
the more personalized education offered at small schools can
often provide the best preparation. Pomona College sent a
higher percentage of its students to Harvard Law in 2005 than
Brown or Duke. The academic might of these less fabled colleges
was never a secret, but it's becoming more appreciated than
ever before. "Most of the good, small schools were church
related to begin with, and it was bad form to beat your chest
and brag," Pope says.
James Sanchez, 21, from the dusty high-desert
town of Española, N.M., is a senior at Davidson College
in North Carolina and an aspiring neuroscientist. He figured
that at a bigger school he would have been lucky to spend
his lab time washing beakers for the star scientists. At Davidson,
where there are no grad students, Sanchez's senior thesis
is an integral part of a larger three-year study of memory
and learning in rats that may offer new insights into Alzheimer's.
His professor anticipates that the research will be published
in a top-shelf neuroscience journal, and says that Sanchez
will be listed as a co-author. That's a rare honor for an
undergraduate, and Sanchez thinks it has given him a boost
in his applications to medical school.
Students see a strategy: choose intimacy and
attention now, and reach for the world-class research university
for grad school. Ashley Rufus, 19, gave up a coveted spot
on Harvard's waiting list in favor of Truman State University
in rural Kirksville, Mo.: "It started out as a financial
issue," says Rufus, who got a full ride to Truman. She
loved Harvard when she visited, but she hated the idea of
eight years of debt if she were to go on to medical school.
Truman was closer to home, had a student-faculty ratio of
15:1, and its graduates have a "very impressive"
rate of acceptance to medical schools. Carla Valenzuela, 18,
who graduated in the spring from Martin Luther King Academic
Magnet school in Nashville, Tenn., applied to 13 schools--and
wound up picking her last choice. She turned down Amherst,
Wellesley and Dartmouth in favor of the University of Maryland,
Baltimore County. Part of the draw was being near a big city;
part was the offer of a Meyerhoff scholarship, a prestigious,
four-year grant for talented high school students studying
science and related fields. All 52 Meyerhoff scholars from
the class of 2005 went on to graduate schools, 45 of them
to M.D., Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. combination programs.
"If I wanted to work right after college,
I would have gone to a more 'name school' like Dartmouth,"
Valenzuela says. But she hopes to become a doctor, so she
did some research. "I definitely looked at the medical-acceptance
rates of each college and how strong their pre-med programs
were, and that helped knock out a lot of colleges." Students
with clear professional goals will pay more attention to the
reputation of a single department than the whole university.
Among the artistically inclined, the Rhode Island School of
Design has always been pre-eminent, but schools like the Savannah
College of Art and Design, Emerson College and Northeastern
University are now attracting kids specifically for their
arts curriculums. Gabriel Slavitt, 17, who this spring graduated
from Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., says his stepsister
"basically flipped out" when she heard he was turning
down Brown University in favor of Washington University in
St. Louis, Mo. He admits that he applied to Brown for the
name, but he concluded that its arts program was not as strong.
"For what I want to study, it doesn't mean anything to
me to be around students that are going to help me get a job
later in life, business students and the like."
Make Me a Match
To see what a more ecumenical approach to college
hunting looks like, you have only to drop in on Pope's Colleges
That Change Lives tour, a kind of low-key Lollapalooza for
freethinking colleges that are looking for liberated students.
Last year more than 600 people attended each of the sessions
in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Washington. In a crowded
Manhattan hotel ballroom, Maria Furtado, director of admissions
at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., grabs the wireless
microphone in front of a crowd of more than 500 parents, students
and college counselors and happily shatters conventional wisdom.
"Every spring and every fall, this is what you will see
and hear in the media: 'No one gets in anywhere,'" she
says. "Gloom and doom. Well, we're here to tell you that
people get in everywhere!" She polls the crowd: What
percentage of kids do you think get into their first-choice
school? One guess is 5%; another is 20%. Furtado beams and
announces slowly, so as not to let the Good Word slip out
too carelessly: "79.8% of first-year students are at
their first-choice school."
Other studies say the number is closer to 70%.
But whatever the exact figure, if you want to be one of them,
Furtado says, "you have to be brave and bold and explore
a school you haven't heard of before." That shouldn't
be hard for this crowd. As a group, the kids are unorthodox,
outspoken late bloomers. "They're very bright, but they
didn't discover it until they were juniors or seniors in high
school," says Goucher College president Sanford Ungar,
who makes the point that those who find their way to a place
like Goucher can be more creative than their highly polished
peers. "They haven't been flattened by steamrollers in
high school," he says. "They haven't been so bruised
in the application process that they are incapable of creative
thought. Many kids have been so overgroomed by their parents
Elizabeth Pantone, 17, listens closely as admissions
officers make their pitch. She's an aspiring writer in an
intense Westchester, N.Y., school, who is both pushing against
the culture and admitting that she's working harder now in
hopes of aiming higher. Her dad, meanwhile, has been trying
to meet her halfway, since no matter what she does she's not
likely to make it to the schools he originally had in mind.
"It's been quite an education for me," he says.
"I was thinking name brand in the beginning, but now
I really believe in this match idea."
This can be a slow process, educating parents.
"After Colleges That Change Lives came out, I got letters
from all around the country from mamas saying 'You saved us,'"
Pope says. "Well, more mamas need saving." At Brookline
High School in Brookline, Mass., headmaster Bob Weintraub
estimates that fully 1 in 3 of his students' parents went
to Harvard. That means one of his many jobs is defusing the
tension they promote. On their own, students set up a wall
by the counseling office where they post their rejection letters.
They call it the Wall of Shame, but it's a great way for them
to realize they're not alone in having their Ivy dreams dashed.
"It's a community of the rejected," jokes Weintraub.
At freshman orientation, Weintraub includes
a plea for parents to check their college anxieties at the
door. "Their kids are just transitioning into high school,"
he says. "They're going to be exposed to drugs, sex,
lots of changes. Can we just deal with the developmental issues
first?" By the time they enter the college hunt, many
kids have been conditioned to treat the process more as a
race than a romance, a test of who comes in first, not what
will make them happy. "You ask students what they want,"
says Rachel Petrella, a counselor at California's La Jolla
Country Day School, "and they say, 'What do you mean,
What do I want? What do I get? I've been working for four
years without daylight. I'm supposed to go to the most selective
school I've earned, right?'"
Actually, no. And thus begins their higher education
about higher education. "The more sophisticated kids
who take on the search as a research project, they are getting
past the prestige," says Petrella. Students see that
schools like Vassar, Lehigh, Colgate and Dickinson really
care about the quality of undergraduate life, she says. Since
many counselors will advise the more anxious students to apply
to at least nine schools (three stretches, three matches and
three safeties), students run spreadsheets rating various
criteria on a scale of 1 to 10, from the food to the student-teacher
ratio to rates of acceptance into grad school. And then there
are the unquantifiable assets. At Davidson, townspeople and
professors bake cakes for the winners of the freshman cake
race and students boast that scattered around the campus are
dollar bills held down by rocks, tangible evidence of an honor
code so entrenched that if a dollar falls on campus soil,
it stays there until the owner claims it. Kenyon in Ohio includes
a paragraph in its acceptance letter that is entirely personal
to the particular student: good job on the essay, nice season
in basketball. The big schools can't do that--"and it's
making a difference," says Sharon Merrow Cuseo, dean
at Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake Academy. "I think of
my students as cynical consumers of college propaganda, but
they love that personal touch. They come in and say, 'Jeez,
look at this note they wrote me. It's good to be wanted.'"
She can map the change in priorities based on the school's
spring 2006 college tour. Five years ago, they just did the
northeast. This year the group, after visiting a campus or
two in New York, split into two parts. The first went south
to University of Richmond, Davidson, William and Mary, and
George Washington. "People are starting to understand
that a lot of the Southern schools in general are great,"
she says. The second broke north into Canada to visit McGill
University in Montreal and the University of Toronto. Cuseo
calls Canada "the new frontier."
Who Needs Consultants?
So how do the private consultants fit into all
this? As many as 1 in 5 applicants to private four-year colleges
get some kind of independent coaching, which can range in
price from $469 for Kaplan's three-hour consultation by webcam
to $36,000 for four years of hand holding offered by superconsultant
Michele Hernandez. Although consultants are easy to caricature
for sanding down and varnishing a nice, raw kid, admissions
officers insist that they can see past the polishing to the
real human being beneath. How useful counselors are may depend
as much on the attitude of the client as the approach of the
counselor. "Some of them are very helpful and are helping
students learn how to tell us about themselves," says
Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania,
in a rare defense of the breed. "I don't think it's fair
to say they're all negative."
For better or worse, working with a consultant
forces students to decide who they are as they shape their
self-portraits and what sacrifices they are willing to make
in the course of their college search. Emma Robson, 17, a
junior in Westport, Conn., found herself wrestling with a
consultant who tried to spike her favorite activity of the
entire year, her seven weeks at a summer camp on Moose Pond
in Maine, where she and a bunch of girls she has known since
she was 10 sing campfire songs and canoe and make lanyards.
Many of her classmates will be spending their summers racking
up achievements, while Robson will be collecting and recollecting,
in a very old-fashioned way, memories. "Camp is very
dear to me," she says, and she's prepared to give up
whatever edge a more intense summer might give her. "It's
a time I get to recharge from a pretty stressful school year.
If I spent the summer taking extra classes, I would just be
worn down by the time school starts."
If parents see college admission as the culmination
of years of investment--the homework showdowns and soccer
shuttles--it's not hard to find kids like Robson who see it
as their deliverance. "I don't really want to continue
all this hypercompetitiveness," says Greg Smith, 18,
a senior in Charlotte, N.C., who cringes as he notes how,
when history projects were announced at his high school, there
was a literal footrace to the library to be the first to get
the key books. He won a Morehead scholarship to the University
of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a full ride offered to the
very top students. It was not only the money but also the
feel of the place that drew him. "The Ivy Leagues just
seemed like a very intense four years where I'd get more of
the same that I've been through here," he says. "There's
such a seek-and-destroy mentality." Others seek out schools
like Sarah Lawrence, which has no required courses and few
exams but rather research papers and essays. Or Hampshire,
where students focus on projects instead of courses and receive
detailed evaluations rather than grades.
College students this spring watched the flameout
of Kaavya Viswanathan, the prepackaged Harvard prodigy who
published a best seller at 19 and had been exposed as a plagiarist
by 20. That's not the way things are supposed to unfold. College
is supposed to be about the Best Four Years of Your Life,
"the love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all
the sweet serenity of books," not to mention pizza and
football and long, caffeinated nights of debate and confusion
and discovery. All that families have to do to succeed, say
veterans of the admissions wars, is let go of some old assumptions
and allow themselves to be pleasantly surprised by how much
has changed on campuses across the country in the past generation.
That ability in the end may be the admissions test that matters