Is Elite School a Good Choice?

By Steven Roy Goodman, Guest Columnist

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
September 25, 2008

This week, thousands of college admissions representatives are converging in Seattle to talk about access to higher education, college costs and recent changes in early admissions procedures. But there’s one big issue that won’t be on the official agenda: whether it even makes sense to want to attend an elite college.

For students interested in public service careers, it is questionable if attending a selective school is a positive move. Who wants to admit to having gone to an Ivy League school and then be accused of being elitist?

Both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have learned to play down the educational aspects of their backgrounds. When was the last time Obama voluntarily uttered the words “when I was at Harvard Law School” on the campaign trail?

As a college admissions adviser, I encourage and support achievement in America. I share my clients’ belief in the educational and professional opportunities that leading universities can afford students and graduates.

As a citizen, though, I understand the general public has mixed feelings about those with degrees from prestigious universities. Our ingrained support for the underdog forces political candidates with high-status diplomas to convincingly explain how they are still of the people.

If you are an aspiring political leader, should you not consider top colleges and universities so that you won’t have to defend your working class credentials in the future?

All things being equal, most mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents are supportive of the educational and professional doors that selective colleges may open for their loved ones. They understand the value of university credentials for individuals, but often are uncomfortable when those with prestigious pedigrees are seen as flaunting their resources.

Think about the messages about success that children hear while growing up. We encourage middle-class students to be proud of where they come from. Be proud that you are from your hometown, even if you later learn that it was on the wrong side of the tracks. And, no matter how successful you may become, don’t get too big for your britches.

When Sen. John Kerry, Yale class of 1966, ran for president four years ago, he was labeled an elitist because he failed to downplay his roots. President Bush’s 1968 Yale degree was OK because he seemed to publicly distain most of his college classmates and boasted about his C average.

Favoring the underdog is deeply rooted in the American psyche. We feel good about the success of others — only until they appear to be doing better than those around them.

Our ambivalence about educational success mirrors how we think about newcomers to a neighborhood or social group. We welcome you as long as you fit in and you don’t become too rich or too poor relative to those around you.

So if you have had so much success as a high school student that you could possibly attend one of America’s premier institutions of higher learning, remember that others may not always look at your educational accomplishments the same way you do. Savor the pleasure of success now — because in 30 years the electorate may not be so congratulatory.

—- Steven Roy Goodman is an educational consultant and co-author of “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.”

<< Back to Steve in the News