The Ivy rat race

New York City’s “most ambitious, wealthiest parents” start the college-admissions process by hiring a consultant to get their toddler into an elite nursery school, writes Lacy Crawford.

Then come tutors, learning specialists, resume-polishing internships or exotic community service and a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school.

Finally, after 15 or so years of parents managing every variable, there comes the time when a student is expected to do something all by herself: fill out the actual application. Write an essay in her own voice.

Not really. Parents hired Crawford, an independent college admissions counselor, to help their kids craft Ivy-worthy essays and applications. Her new book, Early Decision, features an “application whisperer” who helps helicopter-parented kids get into Harvard.

In Personal Statement, Jason Odell Williams satirizes the Ivy rat race. As a hurricane heads for Connecticut,  students converge on the coast to win humanitarian laurels that will look good on college applications.

Secrets of a Princeton marriage

Princeton women should look for a husband on campus, advised Susan Patton, a Princeton alum and mother (of two sons), in the student newspaper.

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

The advice aroused and annoyed pundits), writes Walter Russell Meade on The American Interest. “For both women and men—even the over-achievers among them—happiness is about more than professional fulfillment,” he writes.

Too many elite collegians are marrying each other, writes Mead, citing a New York Times column by Ross Douthat.

Of course, Ivy League schools double as dating services,” wrote Douthat. It’s just considered gauche to say it in public.

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

We need a national baccalaureate to recognize students’ knowledge rather than their ability to impress an admissions officer at age 17, Meade argues.

Today’s blue meritocracy, the degenerate descendant of the upper middle class Progressives of the early 20th century, has a problem: it is formally committed to ideas like equality, social justice and an open society, but what it really wants to do is to protect its own power and privilege. The Ivy League system of elite colleges is a key element in the system of exclusion and privilege that helps perpetuate both the power of the American elite and its comforting delusion that because elite status is based on ‘merit’ it is therefore legitimate.

America “needs to become a more open society”  that can recognize the Princeton kid who’s “an empty polo shirt” and the hard-working Ohio State kid who’s “a serious person,” he concludes.

College as culture

Whether a high school sends its graduates into the world, or off to college, is apparently a matter of institutional culture. In other words, like many other cultural issues, it can not only be changed, but once it does start to change, it becomes self-reinforcing. David Leonhardt of the NY Times Economix blog posts about the story of a magnet school in Bridgeport, CT (which, not to be mean, has always sort of typified “run down city” to me).

The evolution of Central Magnet over the last 30 years, in [guidance counselor] Mr. Moran’s telling, highlights how this pattern might change. Over the years, more Central Magnet students began to apply to and attend selective colleges. As they did, the students in subsequent years began to see applying to those colleges as a normal thing to do. Moving 50 miles, or hundreds of miles, away from home was no longer deeply unusual for a top student.

By now, Central Magnet graduates have attended all eight Ivy League universities, liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Colgate, Haverford, Vassar and even Rice University, some 1,500 miles away, in Houston. “All these schools that were completely unheard of in the last five years are suddenly standard fare,” Mr. Moran said. Among the 140 or so students in a senior class at Central Magnet, more than 70 percent enroll in a four-year college and about 20 percent enroll in a two-year college, he said.

I’ve always maintained that the best thing that ever happened to me was in 7th grade, when I somehow — to this day I’m not sure how, though it probably had something to do with the school play — fell in with a good crowd of rich white girls. (I know now that they weren’t rich, but these things are relative.) It didn’t make me into a good student, but it made me value the valuable things in my education, and that made all the difference. The culture I grew up in was defined in great part by them and their parents.

Kids and adolescents are impressionable, generally conformist even as they’re dying their hair pink, and pretty culturally plastic. If you can make intellectual development and social respectability “the thing to do”, you’ll have gone a long way to building a good future for students. Kudos to Central Magnet for making a positive cultural change.

Minerva promises elite, online college

The Minerva Project, which promises an elite, rigorous, all-online college education, is drawing attention. Ben Nelson, who founded the Snapfish photo web site, sees Minerva as an alternative to the Ivy League. Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard, will chair the advisory board, which will include Bob Kerrey, a former senator and head of the New School in New York, and Pat Harker, president of the University of Delaware and a former dean of the Wharton School.


“Minerva aspires to reinvent everything, from the business model and the curriculum to the way in which teaching is delivered,” writes The Economist.

“I don’t want or need to disrupt Harvard. I care about the kid who should have got into Harvard but didn’t,” says Nelson. Minerva is aiming at the “children of a Wipro middle manager from India, or a Foxconn line operator from China,” says Nelson.

The curriculum will focus on skills rather than traditional academic studies and be based on four pillars: critical thinking, use of data, understanding complex systems and leading through effective communication. The course content will be outsourced, drawing from what is readily available online and through a “Minerva Prize” competition to get leading educators to design classes. It will be delivered via the internet to classes of 25 students and a professor will then engage them in debate. Students will be located in several cities around the world, and be expected to move to a different location each year.

Nelson says it will be harder to get into Minerva than the Ivy League, but that assumes lots of people will be willing to pay $20,000 a year to watch videos, chat online and hang out with fellow Minervans. (If that $20,000 doesn’t cover room and board, Minerva will be no bargain.) The venture is for profit.

It sounds a bit squishy, writes Dan Willingham, but courses will be demanding, and “students who do not perform well will (gasp) fail the course.”

Unexceptional success

My book, Our School, is about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that enrolls primarily low-income Mexican-American students who will be the first in their families to go to college. (Quite a few are the first to complete high school.) This year, for the first time, a DCP senior is headed for the Ivy League. Julia chose Brown over Princeton, NYU and other colleges, writes Jennifer Andaluz, the school’s co-founder and executive director.

In the college-going space we are fascinated with the “against-all-odds” success story. In truth, Julia’s story is rather predictable: she worked hard, established goals for herself, had the support of her mother, played by the rules, and had a mentor who ensured she made a “right fit” decision when it came to her college choices. Whether a student attends San Jose State or a select university like Brown, DCP aims to make college-going unexceptional.

What is worth noting is why Julia chose Brown. One of Julia’s closest mentors is a DCP teacher who is also a first-generation, Latina graduate of Brown. This teacher passed down the “social capital” gained from her college experience by sharing her journey. In the end, Julia believed she could be successful at Brown her teacher was successful.

And this is why DCP is valuable: every year a new cohort of DCP alumni graduate from college. They go from being the one who was inspired to being the one who inspires.
DCP reports that 96 percent of graduates complete the college-prep sequence required by California’s public universities and 96 percent enroll in a two-year or four-year college. The retention rate is 90 percent and the graduation rate is four times higher than the national average for Hispanic students.
 Our School is now on sale at a bargain price at Amazon.

From community college to Ivy League

More community college students are transferring to selective colleges eager to boost diversity numbers, reports the New York Times.

No Berkeley grads need apply

In law, investment banking and management consulting, elite firms hire from super-elite universities, writes Bryan Caplan on EconLog after reading Lauren Rivera’s Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion.

Those evaluating job applicants prefer an Ivy graduate with mediocre grades to a top student from an elite, but not super-elite, school.

So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious …

Evaluators don’t think the super-elite graduates have learned more. In fact, they criticized  super-elite instruction as “too abstract,” “overly theoretical,” or even “useless” compared to the more “practical” and “relevant” training offered at “lesser” institutions. What they value is the rigor of the admissions process, which they believe guarantees a “smarter” student body.

In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser-known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.

Evaluators favor candidates with extracurricular “passions,” which must be prestigious or exotic. Hiking, no. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (or Everest!), yes.

. . . those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.

The process seems likely to screen out truly interesting people, especially those from blue-collar backgrounds.

Elite university graduates are “narrow in certain predictible ways,” writes Megan McCardle, who’s one herself.

I guess I am too, though I never climbed Kilimanjaro. (And I never worked for a fancy law firm, investment bank or management consulting firm!)


Which college graduates will earn enough to pay off their loans? Using PayScale data, SmartMoney looked at college costs and median alumni income two years and 15 years after graduation to calculate the return on investment.

For example, a hypothetical grad who spent $100,000 to attend college and now earns $150,000 a year would score 150. The higher the score, obviously, the better.

The payback rankings show flagship state universities provide faster payback than the high-priced Ivy League or other high-end private institutions. Ivy Leaguers earn more, but they paid a lot more. Georgia Tech, a public university that educates many engineers, has the highest payback rank at 221, followed by the University of Texas at Austin. Sarah Lawrence, a very expensive liberal arts college, is the tail-end Charlie at 60.

At Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y., graduates often choose careers in education, public administration or social work, and come out earning, on average, just $38,600 after two years. (Officials at Sarah Lawrence say that figure may underestimate alumni salaries but also contend that’s beside the point: “Their rewards are measured not just by earnings but by how much they are giving back to society,” says Tom Blum, the vice president of administration.)

Smart Money analyzed only 50 colleges and universities: the eight Ivies, plus more than 40 of the priciest non-Ivy private schools and public universities (based on out-of-state tuition).

As Cost of College points out, the SmartMoney rankings assume students pay the full cost. Many students get some financial aid, especially at the elite private colleges, which have huge endowments. And public flagship universities are a very good deal for in-state students.

Elite colleges admit few veterans

When Princeton undergraduates discuss history, political science or foreign policy, they won’t hear the views of a classmate who’s fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, writes Wick Sloane on Inside Higher Ed. Not a single Princeton undergrad is a veteran. The same is true at Williams College, labeled the best liberal arts college by U.S. News. Harvard enrolls only two veterans; Yale has another two.

Sloane teaches “young men with canes” at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, which enrolls 367 veterans. He proposes that elite colleges admit as many veterans to undergraduate programs as they admit varsity football players.

Elite colleges pay off

College pays off for graduates of top-ranked colleges and university, concludes a study analyzed by Gene Expression. In fact, a Harvard graduate can expect to earn $4,000 more a year at age 28 than a graduate of ninth-ranked Dartmouth and $18,000 more than 25th-ranked UCLA. The pay-off levels off for colleges ranked 75 or lower:  A lower-ranked college graduate averages $43,000 a year at age 28, while a high school graduate averages $30,000.

 So those guys just gave up ~$120k in earnings, plus paying college tuition, for the privilege of making ~$44k by age 28.

Research suggests that going to the high-ranked college — not just being smart enough to get in — makes a big difference in earnings.  So it’s safe to borrow to go to Harvard instead of U-Mass, not so safe to borrow to attend a second-tier private college.