Ivy Lust? One Guy’s Perspective (Cont’d)

Last time, we began discussing what I call “Ivy lust.” I define Ivy lust as that almost indefinable force that attracts legions of high schoolers and even (especially?) their parents to the most prestigious and hard-to-get-into colleges and universities in America.

It’s a force similar to the tractor beam in Star Trek, where the starship Enterprise can offer no resistance, as if some invisible black hole’s gravity is drawing it forward into some new and mysterious realm. The higher education realm that draws all these souls forward is the Quest for Ivy. It infuses them with an endless “Gotta have it!” mindset.

Is Ivy lust a genuine force? How should we think of it? Let’s continue our exploration.

yale building

Sorry for the digression into outer space. The issue, as I see it, is: It’s okay to want to go Ivy, but you better be able to justify your desires. Parents, don’t fall into Ivy lust on behalf of your kids. Don’t influence them to go to Columbia (if they can get in) just so you can half-seriously quip to a friend, whose daughter was just accepted at Bucknell, “What’s the matter? Couldn’t she get into a good school?”

At the same time, don’t dismiss the Ivy schools because “they’re overrated and you can get just as good of an education anywhere else.” This is the reciprocal of the “Couldn’t she get into a good school?” thinking. Counter-elitism is fraught with the same intellectual perils as affirmative elitism.

My advice to high schoolers is related to my parental advice: Don’t let your parents do your college selection for you. Think for yourself. Beyond that, don’t target an Ivy college for the wrong reasons, such as “Brown is where so-and-so from The Big Bang Theory is going” or “I read this really cool story about the crazy parties at Haverford.” And on into the night. Sure, it’s cool to apply to HYPSM (for the uninitiated, that abbreviation stands for “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT). However, it could be even cooler if you applied to a different HYPSM (Hamilton, Yeshiva, Pomona, Scripps, and Macalester) for the right reasons.

I searched the Web trying to find a good definition of what “Ivy League” really means. Oh yeah, I know all about the sports league thing, its roots, and all that. What I’m talking about is the almost mesmerizing power of the term itself. I wanted to know why so many high schoolers out there set their cross-hairs on those eight schools and their equally prestigious (that word again, whatever it means) peer institutions every year.

I found one description in an anonymous statement that references the Ivy League schools’ “relatively small undergraduate populations, large endowments, prestigious academic reputations, and consistent ranking among the top 15 U.S. universities.” That’s an impressive combination of ingredients. Lots of schools could qualify on that first count. The second one cuts down the field considerably. The Big Three, HYP, each have endowments in the double-digit billions of dollars. A billion is a thousand million. That impresses me.

When we talk about schools with “prestigious academic reputations,” the field widens considerably. Quite a few colleges and universities have departments, faculty, programs, or accomplishments that in some manner may be regarded as “prestigious.” Even the Big Three have weaknesses in certain areas, so no one school and especially no one group of schools has a lock on across-the-board prestige. Accordingly, I’m not as impressed by that qualification.

The final aspect of that simple definition, a “consistent ranking among the top 15 U.S. universities” is a heavyweight. Of course, you may be asking, “What ranking?” That’s a legitimate question, the answer to which almost certainly has to be — for better or worse — the annual U.S. News rankings. Assuming for a moment that the U.S. News methodology is reasonably accurate (and that is a big assumption), the fact that the eight true Ivies can hang out at that altitude is a convincing testimony of sorts.

However, my personal opinion is that “Ivy mystique” has more to do with non-quantifiable issues. You can count endowment dollars, student body size, and assign a numerical ranking, but you can’t measure some of the more spiritual aspects these great schools possess.

We have a photograph posted on our refrigerator. I took the picture during one of our many visits to Princeton during our son’s years there. It is an inscription, engraved in stone, above the entrance doors to one of Princeton’s lecture halls. It says:

“Here we were taught by men and Gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die.”

Today’s Politically Correct Police Force will attack this magnificent statement immediately by shrieking about its “sexist religious content.” However, I choose to look beyond political correctness and focus on the spirit embodied within those words. These are capital-“I” Ideals, indeed.

Back in the Eighties, the corporate fight song was Total Quality Management. One of the primary TQM mantras was “Perception is reality.” This means that, good or bad, right or wrong, whatever your “customers” think you are, you are. Well, I’m here to tell you that as far as colleges are concerned, especially the elite schools, perception is sometimes not reality. Whether you’re a high schooler or a parent, you’ve got to be careful about stereotypes and external first impressions. You must dig deeper to get closer to the truth.

Let’s consider once again the forces of Ivy passion or, for some of us, Ivy lust. Perhaps the most appropriate target for this discussion might be the “Harvard or bust!” crowd. I have to wonder if it’s merely a coincidence that “bust” rhymes with “lust.” Substitute any school’s name for Harvard’s and you’ll see how easily all this might apply to you. What are your true motivations for preferring a particular college?

Let’s take a look at how some students pick their target colleges. Most families spend more time selecting their living room furniture than they do evaluating colleges. High school students are especially elusive in articulating their selection criteria. They have been known to invoke a few twists.

Here are 10 reasons why kids pick certain colleges (I’ve heard all of these at one time or another):

1. “My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there.”
2. “They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year.”
3. “It’s close to/far from home.”
4. “There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there.”
5. “It’s Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc.”
6. “They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car.”
7. “My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather-mother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there.”
8. “The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook looked so cool.”
9. “I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc.”
10. “It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges.”

Guess which one makes the most sense? Some of you may answer, “That all depends on your point of view.” I’ve tried to get inside the thinking of my student clients over the years. That’s a daunting process.

My point of view tells me that college matching is a matter of blending the right student qualifications with the right personal preferences. From the list above, you can see a number of irrelevant dynamics at work. Since my focus here is Ivy League and other elite schools, let’s start with #5: “It’s Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc.”

When you consider the fact that there is a good reason these top schools have the performance record and reputations that they do, it’s not hard to understand why a high schooler may develop a passion for one or more of them based solely on anecdotal data and — yes — perception. As with other consumer goods like TVs and automobiles, choosing a well-known and well-respected brand name is relatively safe, but not entirely free of risk. There are easy ways to verify the relative overall quality of a brand-name college if you’re willing to do a little work.

In any event, if you’re looking to find out what HYPSM (again, that’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT) or any of the other best colleges out there are like, search the Web for “college newspapers” and you’ll be pleased to find long listings of links to everything from The Harvard Crimson to The Yale Daily News to The Daily Princetonian. Read them carefully and try to infer and intuit information as you read. Most college newspapers include the email addresses of their staff writers and contributors. This leads to the second source of first-hand information about your dream school: students who go there.

There was a famous, ancient, albeit now seemingly sexist, automobile advertising slogan back in the middle of the first half of the last century that declared: “Ask the man who owns one.” Let me amend that a bit and make it college-research specific: “Ask a student who goes there.”

I get tons of inquiries asking me for my opinion on this or that aspect of certain colleges. My standard response is twofold. First, I direct the inquirer to search Web and guidebook sources for subjective opinions. By “subjective,” I mean “personal.” Those great big Manhattan-telephone-book-sized almanacs of college listings and data are fine for The Facts, but I want opinions.

That’s where College Confidential comes in. There you’ll find the world’s greatest collection of opinions, both good and marginal, about all schools, not just the Ivies and other elites. CC’s discussion forum is the biggest and best in the world when it comes to exploring every tiny nook and cranny of just about any college. It’s more than a must-see; it’s a requirement, as far as I’m concerned.

Reading student opinions is cool, but soliciting them is even cooler. Many college Web sites provide links to student Web pages, which are gold mines of insight into a college’s flavor and character. If you want to know the general tone of a student body, just sample about a half dozen or so of these interesting sites. You’ll find everything from pictures of the students, their friends, families, and pets, to their roommates and beyond. Be prepared to spend hours being mesmerized by the humor and originality on these pages.

Once you have done some browsing at one of your candidate schools, it’s time to make contact. Be prepared in advance, though. Don’t just send an email to someone whom you never met and say something like, “Hey, dude, your Web page is really cool. What’s it like at Penn anyway?” What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, for starters — besides being pretty dumb — your question is just too broad. Be specific. Before you make contact, write down your Top Five list of questions about that school. You might want to know about a certain major (most students list their major on their pages). You may want to find out about that highly touted “12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio” by asking your newly found student contact if s/he has had many teaching assistants (the dreaded “TA syndrome”) in class. Ask about the food, the computer resources, the dorms, the parties, weekends on campus, the local town or city, available transportation, cost of living, weather, sports (do I have to go on?), but have your five or so questions ready (and in good readable shape) before you write that email.

The truly surprising thing is that you’ll get an answer from almost every student you contact. The best part will be getting the ultimate inside scoop on any school your heart desires. Who knows? If you end up going to any of the schools where you’ve made student inquiries, you just might have some ready-made friendships waiting for you there.

Taking this “ask a student” approach one step further, you can pioneer some slightly more exalted ground with an “ask the professor” approach. The same rules apply except when you approach a faculty member or department chair, you had better look sharp because it’s not entirely impossible that some of your application materials may end up on one or more of these profs’ desks. You might ask about a specific course, major, or physical resource under that particular person’s care. You might also ask him or her for suggestions on how to find out more about a special area of interest.

If you’re lucky, perhaps one of the professors will invite you to come and visit them for a special tour of their department. This happened to some couple of my student clients over the years. One young woman was very interested in attending Duke University to study computer science. She made email contact with the chair of Duke’s computer science department and after a few well-thought-out inquiries she visited Duke and got a royal tour of the CS area with the chair himself.

That’s hard to beat. Now don’t expect this level of hospitality and warmth everywhere, but I’m certain that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how accommodating faculty can be to prospective students. After all, if there were no prospective students, there would be no need for professors. I think they understand this concept.

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So, think about what we’ve covered in this post and my previous one. Ask yourself:

Are you under the influence of Ivy lust? Do you sense Ivy lust in your parents?

If so, it’s time to do some serious self-analysis.

You need to determine the reason for your fixation on the Ivies and other elite schools. The process that you use for finding the right school should have a basis in logic rather than emotion. As I mention above, there are plenty of ways for your college-choice process to go off the rails.

Next time, I’ll take a closer look at some of those 10 reasons to pick a college that I cite above. After reading my thoughts on that, perhaps you’ll get a better grasp on whether or not your process is being influenced by the wrong reasons.

In the meantime, spend some serious time on College Confidential. You’ll be glad you did.

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Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.