If there is something like common thinking about this question, that thinking is schizophrenic. Each fall we hear stories of panicky students (and their looming parents) burnishing application essays, soliciting letters of recommendation, and fretting about which prestigious institutions will admit them. And then each spring, those prestigious institutions announce with pride the ever-larger size of their applicant pools and the ever-smaller proportion of their applicants who are allowed to enroll. So yes we hope that Becky gets into her dream college even while we believe that Becky not getting into that college is a sign of its quality.
In the past few years a variation on our question has emerged: Should all qualified low-income, under-represented students attend highly selective colleges? Here the schizophrenia is reversed. We read reports of the small proportion of low-income students who apply to highly selective colleges, and then hear about well-intentioned administrators, think tanks, and non-profits working to increase the number of those students who attend elite colleges.
If we consider these cases together, a few things become clear. First, whether or not all qualified students should attend highly selective colleges, not all qualified students can attend highly selective colleges. There are more students with high GPAs, stellar standardized test scores, and impressive extra-curricular experiences than there are spots in the first-year classes of highly selective colleges.
Second, selectivity is a proxy for quality in higher education. The assumption is that if only a few students who want to attend the college can attend the college, that college must be outstanding. That assumption increases visibility, donations, and cost at elite institutions. Please note that I am not saying that elite colleges are academically unimpressive (though there have been some analysts who have made that point). I am arguing instead that selectivity heightens the impression of quality.
Third, that impression of quality extends to the way we think about the lives of graduates from highly selective colleges. Education commentators by-and-large believe that access to a degree from an elite college opens access to a desirable way of life. This way of life is based on expanded opportunity and choice--graduates of elite colleges will have access to the jobs of their choice in the locations of their choice among peers of their choice. Concern about students getting into these schools, then, can be read as a concern about who gets access to a particular way of life. Whether that is a good way of life is a question that goes unasked.
Fourth, the fact that many qualified students, especially from under-represented populations, choose not to pursue a highly selective college education should remind us something about the purpose of a college education. Rather than assuming that these students should mimic the college-seeking behavior of their elite peers, perhaps we should urge elite students to follow the lead of their less-prosperous peers. By this I do not mean that students should choose poor college-selection behavior--avoiding going to college, or settling for whatever college happens to be down the road, or waiting until the last minute to apply. I do mean, though, that a measure of perspective would benefit high school seniors, their families, and the broader society.
I have worked at a highly selective university and a non-selective college. High-achieving, low-income students who come to my non-selective college do so for good reason. They often have commitments to family and place that they want to maintain, not break. They want a college where it is possible to earn good grades, work or play sports, have some friends, and stay in touch with family without an adderall-fueled, anxiety-laden, sleep-deprived collegiate experience. And they hope to have a life after graduation where they can settle down, land a solid job, relax on weekends, contribute to the community, start a family.
I’m not so much a killjoy to discourage any student who wants an elite education to pursue one. And I’m not so naive as to think that the place of the elite college in American thinking about higher education will go away soon. But I do believe that the lives of students, their families, and their communities would be better if fewer students tried to get into elite colleges and more sought a life of perspective, balance, and commitment to family, community and place.
No one needs a highly-selective college education to have that sort of life.