The Problematic Obsession with Elite Colleges

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Again, it’s the time of year when some high school seniors are beginning to receive Early Decisions from colleges, many of them elite. This marks the start of a new cycle of obsession with the admission decisions made by those elite colleges. Students, parents, and counselors must ask themselves a myriad of questions: Has the admission rate dropped? (Most likely, yes.) Who are the heroes this year? What classes have they taken? What activities have they done? What awards have they won? What did they talk about in their interviews? A frenzy of digging up useful information.

An acceptance letter from a top college is without a doubt considered a monumental success. However, the reason behind this commonsensical judgment is less clear. Students and parents seem somewhat aware that elite colleges do not guarantee nor prove a prerequisite to success in life, with increasingly more studies supporting this observation. According to a paper in 2011, students attending the most elite colleges did not earn more in their 30s, 40s, and 50s than their peers with similar SAT scores who were rejected from those elite colleges. This suggests that where one goes to matters little compared to who one is.  

So where does this obsession come from? It almost seems that attending an extremely selective college is an end in itself. Is it not? Being accepted to an Ivy would prove that one is better than the 95% who were rejected as well as the vast majority who did not feel confident enough to apply in the first place. Is that not success? It is the concrete, indisputable proof of one’s superior ability. It’s no wonder why some rankings consider low acceptance rate a plus.

But a more comprehensive view of life reveals that it’s more about ability than superior ability. In the broader world, being better has little intrinsic value. It is being good that matters. A successful person is one who produces value, not one who produces more value than others. There is a significant discrepancy between success in the college application process, which is a zero sum game, and success as individuals, which is a positive sum game. If the life goal of both the number 5 and the number 3 is to be positive, then in college application, 5 will succeed, and 3 will fail, for it is the fact that 5 – 3 = 2 that matters, whereas from a self-fulfillment perspective, both 3 and 5 succeed because 5 > 0 and 3 > 0.

The obsession with selective college is dangerous, for it propagates that only the better ones are the successful ones. When this philosophy infiltrates the earlier stages of education, it prevents students from learning to enlighten themselves and orients them toward learning to outperform others. During the application season, this culture crushes high school students by making them feel so worthless that they choose to end their promising lives. It even haunts students in their lives after college admission. The sense of worth built upon being better than others is not sustainable. Even being better than 99.99% of the people in the world still indicates being inferior to those 0.01%. After all, there will only be one richest person, one smartest person, one most good looking person, etc. If it is not true that most people just statistically doomed to be losers, equating success with “better” must be problematic, even more so than fanatically chasing after “better.”

At this time of the year, when the anxiety around colleges admissions peaks, high school students and parents may remind themselves that college is merely a stage of life that equips the young adults to succeed in life, whatever that means to them. In itself, it means neither success or failure. It neither defines one’s past or future. I constantly warn myself against the vortex of “better” and try to envision life on a larger scale. When I have difficulty doing so, I just google “insanely successful people who didn’t even go to college.”

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About the author

Lora Xie is a IV boarding student from Chengdu, a southwestern city in China that has the best spicy food in the universe. She feels driven to think and talk about the “big” and abstract questions. She has a weird sense of humor and takes pride in making others think. Her current life goal is to figure out the meaning of her life (or the lack thereof, should that be the case). She hopes that the things she enjoys - math, philosophy, language, computer science, and visual art - will guide her on this journey. She plays tennis and is trying to run. Eating a good breakfast helps her write more elegantly.

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