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Articles / Applying to College / The Pursuit of Prestige

The Pursuit of Prestige

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 11, 2018
The Pursuit of Prestige

.In recent posts here, I've talked about (with apologies to that classic sci-fi movie) The Incredible Shrinking Acceptance Rate. I even jokedu about Stanford's race to become America's first college of prestige to achieve a zero percent acceptance rate.

Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, right around the time that I proffered my zero-percent-solution comment, Stanford announced that it would no longer be publishing admission rates. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might conjecture that they actually had a plan to reach zero percent, but I'm not one to lean on conspiracies. I'm one of those eclectic types: a Realist Idealist. Don't ask. I can't explain it.

In my work as an independent college admission counselor, I would have to say that 98 percent (maybe 99 percent) of the clients with whom I've worked have sought elite colleges. When I ask for their list of candidate colleges, it almost always looks like the usual suspects: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Columbia, U Chicago, Caltech, Duke, Brown and so on. With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States from which to choose, why, I wonder, do these Top 10 (or similar elite schools) keep showing up? My theory is that a big part of the reason is prestige, something pursued either directly or indirectly by both students and parents.

What Is "Prestige?"

Prestige, by definition is “widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality." The keys here are “perception" and “quality." Parental bragging rights also come into play: “Oh, Elizabeth? She's at Princeton." The Vicarious Parent Syndrome (VKS) is something I've written about before, so that may be a part of the pursuit of prestige. One might ask, “Who's really chasing prestige? Dad? Mom? Elizabeth? The whole family?"

It's a mystery to me. Since co-founding College Confidential back in the late summer of 2001, I have watched with interest over the past 17 years the types of students and parents that CC has attracted. While the many articles, features and resources that CC offers can help high schoolers and their families seek any level of college, the clear majority of site visitors and participants seem to be those seeking admission (or transfer) to the Ivy League and other so-called elite colleges and universities.

What is it with all this Ivy League ranting and raving? Where does it come from? What perpetuates it? What should we do about it?

These questions seem reasonable in light of the spiraling number of applications the eight official Ivy League schools receive every year. Of course, there are other “Ivy" schools out there too. Just peruse the top 25 U.S. News national universities and liberal arts colleges lists. There you will find the other “elite" schools.

There are legitimate and honorable motivations for preferring “Ivy." 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 a 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?

Sorry for the digression into outer space. The issue, as I see it, is: It's okay to want to go Ivy, but you'd 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?" That's both cruel and stupid.

In addition, contrary to popular belief, going to an Ivy doesn't guarantee a faster hiring decision after college. According to a recent Gallup/Strada poll, 90 percent of employers say they don't focus on college rankings when making hiring decisions.

At the same time, don't dismiss the Ivies 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 Comedy Central 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.

Speaking of reasons, here are 10 reasons why students 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."

In the vast cosmos of why kids want to go to certain colleges, the thinking seems to fall into four general logic pockets. Remember, some kids make their college picks based on stimuli other than their own head or heart. Mom and dad might be providing strong input inspired by any number of motivations, selfish or otherwise.

Here Are the Four General Categories

1. Possible Temporal Personal Reasons

Just as today's snowstorm can give way to next month's flower blossoms, so do attitudes and cyclical fads come and go. That's why picking a college based on reasons from this group can be dangerous (and expensive). Picking a tried-and-true brand-name college can offset much of the negative potential contained in this type of reasoning.

Think about these for a minute:

– “My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there."

It doesn't take a lot of insight to see the dangers here. Today's boyfriend can be tomorrow's nemesis. Breakups can be especially hurtful at smaller colleges, where everyone seems to know everyone's business. Negative side effects of breakups include depression, anxiety, damaged academics, transfers and other unpleasant realities. If this is one of your top criteria for picking a college, try to use more imagination.

– “They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year."

Ever heard the phrase “from the penthouse to the outhouse"? This happens in the world of sports — a lot. It's easy to be “Notre Dame Proud" when the Irish gridiron squad is 11-1 or 12-0. How proud will you be after two consecutive .500 or (heaven forbid) losing seasons? Sure, there are perennial sports powerhouses out there, but their continuing dominance is not a certainty. Coaches retire, get fired and have bad recruiting years. Be certain that you can survive your college's “outhouse" days, should they occur.

– “It's close to/far from home."

– “I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc."

These two stem from the same geographic root. Remember that great song lyric: “We gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do?" You may feel that way right now and want to get as far away as possible from Mom, Dad, brother and sister. However, as with the other reasons listed here, there is a temporal quality about them. They are subject to change. Consequently, if you live in New Jersey and pick a college in Oregon, you're going to experience lots of hassles if, after you spend a few weeks away from the old homestead, you find that — surprise! — the old folks and brats back home maybe weren't all that bad. On the other hand, maybe those long separations will give both sides a chance to re-establish some calmer perspectives about one another.

Picking a college simply because surf's up, the powder is close to the clam chowder or whatever similar reason is another of those conditional choices. Conditions can change. If you pick a school in the far Northeast for skiing opportunities and then either lose interest or sustain an injury, you could discover just how cold N.H. winters are when you're not shagging down a slalom at full speed. There are also low-snow winters when the powder is scarce. Just examine your geographic preferences carefully before committing.

– “The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook look so cool.

If, like most high school students, you have the usual big green garbage bags full of college catalogs and viewbooks, take a close, dispassionate look at them. See any similarities? Notice how just about every college looks elite somehow with some buildings sporting high Gothic spires and a good dose of ivy growing in all the right places. The lawns are lush green and the sky is deep blue with just a touch of fluffy white clouds. There's usually a lake, beside which a distinguished-looking professor leads his very small class in an animated discussion of some profound topic. Best of all, the students are so diverse!

Wake up and smell the dumpsters, kids! Viewbooks are marketing pieces, just like those Burger King commercials on television. When's the last time you saw a Whopper coming at you through the drive-up window that looked like a TV Whopper? It's the same thing with viewbooks. You've got to “trod the sod." Go there and visit these places if they interest you. Look for that lake. Is it drained? Check out those Gothic spires. Is the building still inhabited by humans? What about those small classes? Are they for real? What's the statistical breakdown of minorities in the student body? Maybe they put the entire minority population in that one picture. Once, a college recalled its viewbooks when someone discovered that the image of a black student on the cover had been Photoshopped in. That really happened. Obvious moral: Don't base your college picks on marketing materials.

2. Almighty Dollar Reasons

– “They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car for college."

As incredible as it may sound, financial considerations shouldn't always be first on your list. Many less-than-optimum college experiences have happened and are in progress right now because of money. Don't let sticker price alone be your criterion.

3. Personal Pride, Prestige and Family Tradition Reasons

– “It's Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc."

– “There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there."

– “My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather/grandmother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there."

Picking a college because others in your family went there or because others “like you are" go there may be a perfectly fine idea, but it may also greatly limit your individualism and quest for personal growth. Even though your relatives may have found one particular school successful in meeting their unique needs, maybe that school won't do the same for you.

Likewise, if you want to stay around others whose orientation, political or otherwise, is the same as your own, then a school with many similar kinds of students should be fine. Keep in mind, though, that it's a big world out there and you'll eventually have to enter the fray. You'll more than likely have little control over whom you have to associate with day after day. That's why it may be better to consider a broader swath of college demographic options.

4. The Best Reason

– “It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges."

There may be other ways of stating it, but this is by far the best approach for picking a college. It covers all the bases: demographics, location, financial and so forth.

Approaching college selection with a mind toward balance is similar to a smart investment strategy. If you spread your investment across a wide enough menu of considerations, an isolated downturn can't hurt you that badly.

The pursuit of prestige, then, can be a legitimate quest if you do a diligent audit of why specific colleges are on your list. Then, you might possibly realize an ideal match for your higher education goals. You also might even get into one of those soon-to-be zero percent-acceptance-rate schools. I hope so!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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