Elite Universities: End All Be All?

Staffer weighs in on elitism in college applications and admissions, locally and nationally


Sailaja Nallacheruvu

Every year, as Commitment Day draws closer, seniors across the country get excited, not just to celebrate their own decision to commit but also to find out where their peers are going and what they’ll pursue. While some students are genuinely interested in other seniors’ accomplishments, more often than not, it’s about measuring other people’s perceived high school successes against their own. 

While I’ve occasionally fallen victim to thoughts like this myself, I want to ask my fellow seniors why that comparison is so important to us when we’ve had the fact that college is “all about fit” drilled into us a million times over at counselor meetings, college information sessions and even from our own teachers. 

As cliche as that idea sounds, I do believe that it’s true. In that case, we have to reconsider whether we care about the colleges we apply to and attend because we’re sure that campus makes sense for us, financially, academically, and socially, or if we’re just choosing it because of its ranking on a site like The Princeton Review or US News. 

Picking a college just because of that second mentality, or solely for its prestige, has negative effects, on both our own lives and a national scale. In our personal lives, that thought process leads to students being more likely to judge themselves or be judged by others simply based on what school they choose, especially if it’s considered less “elite.” 

Lingering on those choices or on the perception of others past Commitment Day makes enjoying college and being successful there harder. Universities provide students with a million different opportunities in various fields, and worrying about a ranking or a “what could have been” scenario of going to a different school makes taking advantage of them harder. While that resulting unhappiness isn’t ideal, it’s just the tip of a very problematic iceberg. 

The jokes we make about Aunt Becky on Full House due to Lori Loughlin’s involvement in the “Varsity Blues” college payout scandal is a great, if somewhat comedic, example of the national impacts. The fact that more affluent people have the privilege and see the need to lie and pay their way into colleges with strong reputations simultaneously removes the truth of that strong reputation. It falsely increases the general public’s belief that those schools are somehow better than other colleges. 

That’s fundamentally not true, especially since the process of college admissions cannot actually be meritocratic if the wealthiest regularly pay their way into college with few consequences. Happiness is possible at and after graduating from any college. As we all weigh our own decisions, seniors should remember that college is what you make of it; the high rates of success at certain schools are dependent on the personal resources and efforts of the student, and not always the nature or endowment of the university itself. 

Choosing to believe that private institutions or schools with lower acceptance rates are somehow better or indicative of a better future is extremely elitist and privileged of us as students, if not an incorrect notion entirely.

While at Stevenson, going to college is considered the norm, that isn’t actually true nationally. According to the Census Bureau, in 2019, only around 36 percent of adults aged 25 or older in this country had bachelor’s degrees. That means, no matter what the peer or parental pressure we’re facing tells us, we’ve accomplished a lot by merely choosing to advance our education, whether that’s with a bachelor’s degree, trade school or any other post high school program. When this May rolls around, wherever we commit, or whatever we choose to do after high school, that choice is valid. 

In 2019, 35% of Americans over the age of 25 had bachelor’s degrees or higher. Stevenson’s class of 2018 saw 89% of students attend college.

And if that choice leads to students attending or applying to “elite” institutions like Ivy Leagues, that is an impressive accomplishment, but not an accurate marker of success. Oprah Winfrey (a Tennessee State grad) and Bill Nye (alumni of Bridgewater State College), for just two examples, became as famous as they did because of their work ethic and values, not because of their colleges. At the end of the day, deciding to attend any university, and being proud of it, should be because of our own choices and not because of how we believe other people will view us. 

In the next few months, we’re going to get many admissions results, and make some pretty monumental decisions about the rest of our lives. I hope that those decisions are made based on our opinions, choices and comfort levels with various educational opportunities, and not because of how we view a college’s rankings or how we hope other people will consider us because of it. 

Colleges and degrees matter, but the way we use those degrees and our education matters the most. Using rankings or acceptance rates to validate either of those is not a system that works, for ourselves or our future.