There are many ways to get a fine education in our nation; liberal arts colleges like Reed, Kenyon, St. John’s (Santa Fe or Maryland locations), Bowdoin, Middlebury, or Vassar are tough to beat for individual attention and smaller scholarly classroom experiences with close mentorship.
However, because of recent backlash against the selectivity of our Ivy League institutions, along with Stanford and MIT, many students are being led to believe that they cannot get this type of supportive mentoring and deeply meaningful, life-altering learning from these schools as well. Students are being overwhelmed by media suggesting that the singular reason for going to college is getting a job afterward (as if colleges can assure you of a job upon graduation)—citing statistics that Ivy and top-tier graduates do not do better financially than graduates of other colleges; that the alumni network among Ivy graduates, for example, doesn’t seem to provide jobs in a preferential fashion; and that students could have a much easier time in high school without taking all the tougher, challenging courses required for possible admittance into the Ivies (yes, we’d all have an easier time in life if we didn’t have to deal with challenge and competition, but that’s not reality, guys). These articles and talking heads suggest that students who attend Ivies would do just as well attending any of our nation’s excellent colleges, since it’s the student, not the school that makes the future happen. Furthermore, why not skip the process and do a Thiel Fellowship (if you are among the entrepreneurially brilliant and also very lucky), go to coding or vocational school (if the traditional academic route is not for you), or travel the world and figure out your path later? It could be a fun and fulfilling option, but not for everyone. And there we have it…the Ivy League is also not for everyone, but for those young scholars who seek the nourishment of small seminars for their lively literary or political debate; who love the process of critical analysis and empathic growth; who bend towards studying a lyrical piece of writing or an elegant equation as readily as someone else is thrilled by conquering Ruby on Rails; who thrive on competing, intellectual sparring, and learning beyond the expected or accepted. This kind of student also has to choose his or her new academic and social home with great care, because not every school will fit.
It’s true that if you are a proactive, professionally hungry student, you will likely do well professionally, regardless of where you go to college. It is still important, though, to think about who your circle of friends might be at school. Who will be your influencers? Will there be students to push you towards your personal best? If you have spent your high school years challenging yourself intellectually, artistically, entrepreneurially, etc., then why wouldn’t you try for the most rigorous and esteemed universities in the nation—the top tier and the Ivies? Admittance is not a sure thing. Everyone knows that; but you can’t get admitted if you don’t apply. And you may not apply if you don’t understand what a gift that four year experience can be—academically and financially (because the scholarships are need-based and generous). It is an opportunity to be surrounded by professors of once-in-a-lifetime stature and spark. It is a social connection to an unnervingly brilliant and talented pool of friends, advocates, and adversaries—all equally important characters in life, who will push you to be your best or better than your best. The Ivies and schools of that ilk still present you with uncommon academic and creative riches along with valuable social capital: There will be coffee with your politics professor debating Hobbes and Locke, dinner with your English professor dishing up Dante’s Inferno, elegant equations to turn on their sides with your engineering professor, and business plans to concoct with the director of entrepreneurship. The Ivies, if you do gain access, provide the most generous college scholarships based on need and wide open doors for summer internships through alumni connection and name recognition. I am not saying that those of you who are at the top ten percent of your high school class will not find academic challenge and success at schools of all tiers; rather, I am saying that some students will find, in the Ivies and top tier, exactly what they’ve been dreaming about all though their rigorous high school adventures. Do not let naysayers embarrass you for wanting to reach if your academic or artistic talents make the reach worthwhile. Students are not cookie cutter—neither should they expect their college experiences to be.
Do not listen to naysayers who might have sour grapes about not having gained acceptance to one of these schools, or who might be pushing certain social or business agendas, or who might be well-intentioned but ill-informed young people hitching a ride on the popular threads of social media. Please, if you have the desire for this kind of education, extend yourself and try for it. These four years never come again. You will be accepted somewhere wonderful if you’ve achieved academically and have made interesting attempts to explore your authentic self in high school. The first step is admitting that’s what you want.