Rankings vs. Fit, Part I

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part One of the series.

William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has generated heated debate at the New Republic and elsewhere. In the original piece, excerpted from Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, the author argues that education at Ivy League institutions is fundamentally mismanaged and that our most elite institutions are producing graduates incapable of living the kinds of lives that Deresiewicz seems to think they should.

In the ensuing flurry of responses, a few critical questions emerge: What is college for? How should one choose a college?

Deresiweicz, and the authors who have joined the debate, are using “The Ivy League” as shorthand for a group of schools none of them define clearly, muddling the conversation significantly. The Ivies are, of course, a group of eight elite colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The combined undergraduate enrollment of these schools is just shy of 100,000 students, or about one half of one percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in the country. Deresiwiecz’s ostensible clarification that he refers to “our entire system of elite education,” including private and some public high schools, tutors, test prep, graduate school, and hiring practices, is problematic in its lack of precision. If his concern is, as it seems to be, with the entire system by which we educate and hire young people (not with the Ivy League specifically), why invoke the Ivies in the title?

Here the Ivy League is employed as a symbol of elitism, and of success – pointing to a much larger issue with the way we choose colleges. He comes closest to salient criticism of our current system when he writes: “Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.””

Prestige. Selectivity. Rankings. These are the criteria college lists are made of, right? Most prestigious is synonymous with “best,” which is somehow synonymous with “best for me.” In the hierarchical system of evaluating schools, the Ivy League colleges live at the top of the mountain with all other options somehow less shiny and promising.

Deresiwiecz hints at this disconnect but fails to make the next logical step: the ideal school for me may not be the ideal school for you, the most prestigious school that will accept a student may not be the one at which he or she will get the best education. If we can’t simply choose a college based on its rankings, how should we choose?

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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