It seems like everybody wants their kid to go to an Ivy League college (or another leading university like Stanford or Duke). A degree from one of those schools is supposed to be a ticket to the good life. They are the “best,” after all, and the students who go to them are “the best and the brightest.”
I think we need to think again. I taught at Yale for ten years and Columbia for five. I’ve been writing, reading, and thinking about the problems of elite higher ed for another six. Most of all, I’ve been listening to students at campuses across the country talk about how they feel about their education, what it isn’t giving them.
My new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, lays out the realities that lie behind the ivy-covered walls and proposes solutions for students as individuals and society as a whole. Here are some of those realities:
1. Getting in will drive you crazy.
Doing what it takes to get through the admissions process at an Ivy-type school (where the acceptance rate is often lower than 10%) will turn you into an overstressed achievement-machine. Clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, “leadership,” “service”: it’s known as the “checklist childhood,” and it’s driving our high schoolers crazy. A former student told me that a friend of his put it like this: “I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”
2. The student culture can be toxic.
All those little hoop-jumpers don’t slow down once they get to college. They tend to be just as busy, just as competitive, just as careerist, just as devoted to amassing credentials—and just as stressed—as they were in high school. That’s why so many of them—about half at most top universities—go into one of the “big four” professions after graduation: law, medicine, finance, or consulting. You can resist the culture, but it isn’t easy. “It’s hard to build your soul,” said a former student, “when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”
3. Your professors aren’t paid to teach.
Professors are rewarded for research. They know that every extra minute spent on teaching—preparing for class, making thoughtful comments on your papers, talking one-on-one in office hours—is a minute taken away from what’s really going to help them get ahead. “Winning the campus teaching award,” said one higher ed veteran, “is the kiss of death when it comes to tenure.” That’s true at every university, but the more prestigious the university (and we’re talking about the most prestigious ones of all), the more true it is. That is why the closest that you often get to those “big names” on the faculty is the other end of a lecture hall.
4. They have turned into glorified vocational schools.
Elite universities like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they really mean is that they train them in the skills that are necessary for professional success. So when kids get to college, they hear a speech or two that urges them to ask the big questions. And when they graduate, they hear another speech or two that urges them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that teach them to answer the little questions: specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. That isn’t education; it is training.
5. They want you to be rich, even if it makes you miserable.
“The purpose of Yale College,” said a former graduate, “is to manufacture Yale alumni.” At elite private colleges, the business model depends on insuring a critical mass of wealthy future donors. Those schools have strong incentives not to produce too many seekers and thinkers, too many artists, teachers, ministers, public-interest lawyers, non-profit workers, or even professors—too much selflessness, creativity, intellectuality, or idealism. That is why they don’t do anything to slow the rush to the big four professions: in fact, they sometimes even give recruiters from them preferential access.
6. You don’t really have an equal shot at getting in.
Colleges also need a critical mass of “full payers”: people who don’t need financial aid. (They account for at least 40% of families who send their kids to selective private schools.) Plus the best way to make sure your alumni are rich is to admit the children of people who already are. So schools give preferences to “legacies” (kids whose parents went there), athletes (who also skew rich, despite what people think), and the children of donors and celebrities. They are also increasingly interested in foreign students, especially ones from the rising economies, the better to line up the big gifts a generation from now.
7. They make inequality worse, not better.
College is supposed to be the engine of social mobility, helping talented kids to rise in society no matter where they start. In fact (this won’t be a surprise by now), our schools are doing the opposite. One study found that 75% of students at selective colleges come from the top quarter, only 3% from the bottom quarter. That means your chances of getting to one are 25 times greater if you grow up affluent than if you grow up poor. “The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard,” said one writer, “is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.”
8. They have created an elite that is failing us.
More and more of our leaders come from the same small set of schools: politicians, judges, bankers, CEOs, the upper echelon throughout our institutions. As we’ve been seeing now for years, they are failing, and they are all failing in the same way. They are exactly what you would predict from the system that produced them: adult versions of excellent sheep—brilliant, gifted, energetic, yes, but also anxious, greedy, bland, and risk-averse, with no courage and no vision. Self-dealing, self-enclosed, self-perpetuating, and extremely self-delighted. It’s time to make the Ivy League and other private colleges obsolete by recommitting ourselves to free, top-quality public higher education, as we did in the 50s and 60s, when the country was strong.