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April 16, 2014 8:51 AM The Fetishization of Elite University Admission

By Keith Humphreys

A friend of mine who served on a local school board attended multiple meetings in which parents complained about the way GPA and class rankings were calculated for high school students in AP courses. After hours of passionate discussion driven by a very small number of parents, he lost his temper and said “We have thousands of kids in our district and I am sick of spending all our time debating whether the few of them who want to go to Princeton are going to end up at Dartmouth instead”.

I thought of my friend when I read the recent New York Times story with the doleful title Best, Brightest and Rejected. My university’s very low rate of acceptance is the kick-off point for the article, which mentions the case of Mr. Isaac Madrid. Isaac does not understand why he didn’t get in to Stanford. Tragically enough, the story informs us, he will instead have to go to Yale.

Yale! Congratulations to Isaac and family! The NYT photo makes Isaac look pensive and maybe a little sad, when it ought to show him jumping up and down with joy because he is a no doubt amazing young person who is heading off to a world-class university.

Stanford University is a great place to get an education and I am lucky to be a professor here. But no one’s life chances break down into two mutually exclusive options: Stanford admission vs. Chronic unemployment and homelessness. Whether it’s intentional or not, the extraordinary amount of focus NYT and other prominent media outlets give to the importance of getting into ONE PARTICULAR ELITE UNIVERSITY (Usually Harvard or Stanford) distorts the perspective of many young people and their parents. I would not have believed it until I got here and saw it up close, but there really are parents with great kids heading off to great schools who consider their children not being admitted to Stanford a disaster, a crime against humanity, or both.

I think the media could do a public service by focusing coverage of university admissions more proportionately on the kinds of institutions that most people attend (e.g., my alma mater). As part of that, I would hope they could bring alive for anxious parents and young people the reality that there are lots of terrific places to get a college education and that most of the successful and fulfilled people in the country did not attend the handful of small, private institutions whose admissions are the subject of outsized media attention.

[Cross-Posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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