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Elite Colleges Reconsidered

Elite Colleges Reconsidered

Yale students, if they’re still anything like they were when I graduated a few short years ago, likely aren’t overly concerned with the college admissions scandal that dominated the news this past spring, even as Lifetime releases its TV-movie based on the events and Felicity Huffman walks free after having served her eleven days in jail. Instead, Yale students will be focused on their classes, fulfilling their language requirements, agonizing as early as November about their plans for the following summer, and scrambling to join the various clubs that, like so many activities on campuses, require a surprisingly vigorous application process. For the newly arrived freshmen, who are, by now, probably starting to feel a bit more at home on campus, there is also probably still that lingering sense in the back of their heads that they made it: that they were admitted from the record 36,829 who applied for a spot in the class of 2023 to a school considered among the most prestigious in the world.

The college admissions scandal produced a number of thoughtful takes, from the recent inquiry suggesting that most admissions officers will still take applicants’ words at face value—to Yale lecturer and Atlantic editor Graeme Wood’s observations on the arguably outsized role of athletics in American higher education (“Anyone who is not American, watching these indictments of parents who allegedly paid to get their kids designated as soccer players and sailors so they could get into Stanford and Yale, will wonder why playing soccer or sailing should help you get into Stanford or Yale”). However, despite all of the hand-wringing about the scandal and the numerous proposed solutions—with only a few exceptions—the end goal was rarely questioned. It was still assumed that for the average young person, going to a school like Harvard or Yale or Duke was something to be overwhelming desired—and to lose one of those few coveted spots to someone whose parents had pulled strings was very unfortunate indeed.

There’s no doubt that going to universities like Yale or Duke, the two universities I attended, has its benefits. The admissions brochures like to focus on the statistics, from the number of Noble laureates on staff to the faculty-student ratio. Then, there is the incessant talk of “connections” to be made, a selling point that always struck me as rather unfortunate in its gentle suggestion that relationships should be viewed through the lens of the transactional. The greatest benefit to attending these schools, from what I tend to hear from fellow graduates a few years out, is the sense of confidence it can imbue in those who make it to the other side: the knowledge that one hung with the so-called “best and brightest” and did well enough, at the very least, to earn the diploma.

With this said, however, I have some reservations about elite universities: the culture on their campuses, and the near-exaltation they receive from families and admissions counselors in many parts of the United States, particularly in affluent cities and suburbs. At the high school I attended, for example, students began studying for standardized tests four and five years before they would actually sit to take them, with one goal in mind: attending one of these schools. And the college counselors and parents cheered this along every step of the way. My intent, though, is not to criticize my alma mater gratuitously. There are many excellent course offerings to be had and a near endless opportunity to learn. That is not an admissions brochure cliché; it’s simply reality. But these schools have their problems, and their shortcomings receive comparatively little attention, lost amid the adulation that holds them up as the summum bonum of young adulthood. And when criticisms do emerge, they tend to focus disproportionately on campus politics. While the shrill radicalism of many campus protesters is certainly cause for concern, it is perhaps not as impactful to the lives of most students, at least on a daily basis, as the two more fundamental problems I observed during my time as a student.

My two central concerns have surely been observed before—likely because they’re so fundamental and so obvious. For some reason, however, they’re all too rarely put front and center for both those clamoring to get onto these elite campuses, as well for those who frequently criticize schools such as Yale along political lines. The first major point relates to the happiness of the students, and the second is that, before long, they all begin to parrot the same conceptions of what a productive life looks like. And this is at a time when the financial benefits of attending these universities may not be as overwhelmingly clear as many might expect. Taking issue with one’s alma mater is never fun, almost like leveling criticism at a family member for whom one has conflicting emotions. Perhaps that’s why it’s so infrequently done. But for young people (and their parents) in the throes of a fixation on these elite schools, perhaps it’s worth taking a moment to look upon these campuses with a healthy dose of reality.

The first problem on these campuses—and probably the most important one—is that the students, on the whole, aren’t terribly happy. The statistics, as we’ll see later, certainly back this up, as do the reports of Yale students clamoring to take the first-ever course offered on “Happiness,” which became the most widely subscribed to class in the university’s more than 300-year history; a quarter of Yale undergraduates enrolled. A freshman taking the class explained the appeal to the New York Times: “In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb…The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions—both positive and negative—so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.” Philosophical beliefs on happiness being achieved through developing strong habits etc. (some of which can indeed be taught) temporarily aside, the fact that a quarter of Yale students would need to enroll in a class such as this—to the point that the university would exhaust its entire psychology department staff filling it with the necessary teaching fellows—doesn’t exactly bode well as a barometer for the collective mental well-being of Yale students, a point even acknowledged by the course’s instructor, Professor Laurie Santos: “Students want to change…the culture here on campus.”

The media’s attention to the issue of the mental well-being of students on campuses of Ivy League schools perhaps began in earnest following the 2014 suicide of University of Pennsylvania (Penn) freshman and track team member Madison Holleran, who took her life by jumping from a high floor of a West Philadelphia parking garage. (Fourteen students at Penn have committed suicide since 2014, and in September, Penn’s head of counseling, Gregory Eells, also his took his own life.) In 2018, a student at Yale the year below me, Hale Ross, who was also a runner, committed suicide following an unsuccessful attempt the year before. The following May, the month his son would have graduated from Yale had he lived, his father, Jack, wrote a stunning essay for the Yale Daily News, seeking to understand his son’s death. The essay was entitled “The Dark Lining of the Prefontaine Mantra,” a title that referred to a rigorous code that Hale had chosen to live by and was named for his hero, the runner Steve Prefontaine. It held that, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

Jack Ross would eventually conclude that his son’s preexisting mental difficulties were exacerbated by this extreme mindset his son adopted, a mindset perhaps far too common at pressure cooker institutions like Yale. Jack Ross also suggested that there existed a disproportionate focus on outward-facing, more easily quantifiable metrics of success in environments such as Ivy League campuses (and the post-graduate destinations these students choose): “You might define yourself primarily by reference to your GPA, graduate school admissions or getting that perfect job. One day, you might attain a different perspective, where you can appreciate that bumps in life—even severe bumps—can be navigated[.]” Chesterton would have provided a better mantra than Prefontaine’s: “The carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people.”

It would be incorrect to set the blame squarely upon Yale for Hale Ross’s death, something that his father stops far short of doing—any more than it would be appropriate to hold Goldman Sachs fully culpable for the 2015 suicide of a 22-year-old analyst, Sarvshresth Gupta, or Park Avenue for the death of Kate Spade. Maybe they ended up in these places to begin with because they were already unhappy and thought the glitz might be the panacea. But when the Boston Globe is reporting that MIT’s suicide rate is nearly double the national average on college campuses—much like what has been taking place at Harvard (for undergraduates)—it’s probably worth considering that something has gone wrong. At Yale, a full 50 percent of undergraduates reported needing to avail themselves of mental health resources during their time as students.

I certainly recall the feeling in the air in a Duke or Yale library on a given weeknight (and plenty of weekend nights too). There were the students completely overwhelmed by their work, the palpable sense of stress, interrupted only by a quick trip to the “butteries” in a residential college’s basement where students would eat a late-night snack with their endless sea of problem sets still scattered in front of them. Many who have sought to get to the bottom of the epidemic of less than giddy students on Ivy League campuses have put forward the explanation that the students, who were formerly the top students in their high schools, were now competing with all the other valedictorians for the same grades. The re-centering of their identity as members of the middle-of-the-pack, as this narrative goes, proves disastrous to their egos. In some cases, there might be something to this, but I think there’s much more to the story. And sometimes the academic choices pushed by the universities themselves are, in part, to blame.

Yale, for instance, requires 36 courses to graduate and concedes in its Undergraduate Handbook that this requirement, “is somewhat heavier than that of students in other colleges or universities, many of which require only 32 course credits for graduation.” Although this policy did result in students, myself included, taking courses they may not have taken otherwise, the downsides likely outweigh the upsides; one really feels those extra four courses in an already stressful academic environment. Then, there is the matter of making things harder than they need to be. I recall reporting to my first day of Introduction to Microeconomics and being handed a textbook with a cover that read that it was intended for “Advanced MBA/MS Students.” There are few things more counterproductive than requiring students, who are taking an introduction to a subject, to be given texts that assume a foundation they do not yet have.

How about starting at the beginning? And, also, there’s the amount of reading frequently assigned. It would require students to be nothing short of super-human if they were able to complete it all. The irony is that, at least in my observation, many students would be so overwhelmed by the quantity of the reading, they would fail to even open the book. Whereas if they had been asked only to read the most pertinent chapter or two, they may have done that and taken away the key point. Sure, defenders of this policy might recall the many long hours they themselves spent when they were undergraduates, medical students, or law students with endless amounts of reading, but just because there has been overkill before doesn’t mean that there ought to be overkill now. There are countless bright young people looking to learn; there’s no need to make things unreasonably difficult.

The strategy put forward when trying to solve this growing, near-epidemic of unhappy students, thus far, has probably not been the correct one. As of late, the fashionable response by students to these staggering degrees of unhappiness has been to demand more and more resources be allocated to schools’ mental health departments: hire more doctors, decrease wait times, and do more to combat the alleged stigma concerning mental illness. With respect to our current culture of assigning a diagnosis to everything, there’s probably more to be said for the toll taken by the aforementioned stresses than genuine mental illness. The problem might be more the result of lives not lived correctly, rather than something to be medicated or therapied out of. And if students aren’t already unsettled by the endless stresses on these campuses, what awaits them after graduation tends to be more of the same, as such a large share of the university population migrates 80 miles south to New York City to embark on the same couple of career options.

As is frequently lamented, nearly 30 percent of Yale graduates from the class of 2018 entered finance or consulting. Peggy Noonan, in describing elite universities as “indoctrination mills,” may have meant it in the political sense, but it could be said just the same about what students decide makes for a valuable post-graduate life. This was perhaps most famously pointed out by Marina Keegan in her widely-circulated Yale Daily News essay “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” which bemoans how Yale students, many of whom entered their college years with every interest under the sun, all somehow decided mid-way through that there were only a few respectable career paths. Writing, theatre, or non-profit work be damned—the financial industry was the answer. It’s not a problem, of course, for students who have always been keenly interested in investments and financial institutions; the issue is with those who had been gravitating towards anything but—yet were prodded in that direction by the ethos of their campuses. Again, as Jack Ross implied, underlying much of the mentality prevalent on these campuses is a focus on the readily quantifiable: GPAs, salaries, business school rankings, a mindset that makes less easily explainable post-graduate plans unpalatable for many deciding seniors.

However, the groupthink may not be paying off as well as many graduates might have expected. I recall when Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire co-founder of the financial firm Blackstone came to visit Davenport College, where he and I had both lived at Yale. The students gathered for his informal Q&A giddily asked him for advice on how they might best “emulate his success.” Expecting Schwarzman to tell them to work this job or that job, score an internship at one company over another, he instead provided two unexpected pieces of advice; the first was not to marry the wrong person, and the second was to look at the list of which industries recent graduates of Harvard Business School were entering—and do anything but that. The implication being that if everyone else is already flocking to a certain industry, it’s probably too late to score big there.

However, in the meantime, as graduates of these schools work the same jobs and inhabit the same social circles, there’s all but a continuation of campus life in just a couple of cities. New York City was the number one post-graduation destination for students of six of the eight Ivy League schools, with approximately a quarter of Princeton and Cornell graduates heading there, diplomas in hand. Combine New York City, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, and that’s almost 45 percent of Yale’s graduating class. Even when graduates head to other parts of the country, it’s often under the auspices of “Ivy League-approved” organizations, such as Teach for America or its up-and-coming counterpart Venture for America. Malvina Reynolds in her 1962 song “Little Boxes” described the people who, “All went to the university/Where they were put in boxes/And they came out all the same.” Today, the question has been reduced almost to which New York neighborhood to call home and which turnstile of a Manhattan skyscraper to swipe a work keycard at each morning. Allen Ginsberg wondered if the best minds of his generation were, “destroyed by madness.” Today, the best minds of this generation are being saddled with trading fixed income securities.

Having mixed feelings about elite universities is nothing new; Theodore Roosevelt didn’t care much for his time at Harvard but admitted enjoying returning home to New York and being known as, “a Harvard man.” Franklin D. Roosevelt would express his own misgivings about his time at Harvard. He would dwell on his college years decades later to such a degree that Churchill, when visiting from England, would make mention of President Roosevelt’s fixation in his diary, indicating, as Jon Meacham would phrase it, that President Roosevelt seemed not to understand that life was not what happened while you were growing up—but what happened after you grew up. And, on the other side of the Atlantic, Rupert Murdoch, in a letter home from Oxford, told his father, perhaps a tad hyperbolically, that, “If it weren’t for good friends, I’d have shot myself in this bloody place long ago. Rain, wind, sleet, slush, shit, snow, and starch.” Some of the angst is likely due to this liminal stage in one’s life, but perhaps the campuses haven’t exactly been helping.

For those of us concerned about the ethos of American elite universities, we ought to refrain, however, from embracing knee-jerk, reactionary answers. The most notable of these is perhaps the one suggested by Peggy Noonan in her Wall Street Journal column “Kids Don’t Become Success Robots.” In her article, which was written in the midst of the news breaking about the college admissions scandal, Noonan seems to suggest that students ought to do basically the complete opposite of seeking out an Ivy League education. Instead, Noonan holds up, in her view, the ideal alternative: Tennessee Tech, a state university in Central Tennessee. But, as mentioned, if approached with a level-head, there are clear benefits, particularly academic, to attending Ivy League universities. To make the antithesis of the Ivy League the ideal is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and fail properly to appreciate the tremendous academic opportunities available on the campuses of Ivy League universities. All the while, Noonan’s line of argument is made with an almost voyeuristic, outsider-looking-in sort of tone. With respect to FiveThirtyEight, The New Republic, and others when they run their respective version of the story “Shut Up About Harvard,” that’s not quite the answer either.

As is the case with most complicated matters, simple solutions are unlikely to be had. Even the newly-emerging consensus opinion that admission be delayed until students are older would probably only go so far. By then, students may indeed no longer be as susceptible to what the elder Mr. Ross described as that “deadly loss of perspective,” which his son experienced and can precede the most tragic (but still relatively uncommon) of student experiences at universities, elite or otherwise. However, many of the older students I knew encountered the same set of pressures and anxieties on these campuses as their younger counterparts, though, in my experience, they did tend to be less susceptible to the “consulting craze.”

Although the Happiness Class may have been mentioned earlier as a symptom of the underlying problem, it is also perhaps part of beginning a strategy of finding the remedy—most of all in asking students to take more responsibility for their own happiness, rather than continuing to endlessly demand more and more resources be thrown at the problem—a problem that is unlikely to be talk-therapied out of anyway. Instead of continuing demands to have almost as many campus psychiatrists on staff as professors, perhaps it would be wiser to ask students to look more squarely at a campus culture that promotes unnecessary stresses. And, even though the political issues are likely inextricably linked to unhappy students and the sort of groupthink that reduces future plans to only a few possible options, universities ought to redirect even a fraction of the effort they devote to this political cause or that one towards re-examining the campus climates they have helped to create.

Lastly, to all of the fraught parents and high school students, many of whom I knew all too well when I was where they are now, yes, there’s certainly something to be said for any Ivy League education, but, like anything else, the rose-tinted glasses through which many see these schools obscure a few less than ideal realities.

 

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder at Merion West, a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization. He also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on the intersection of media and politics and studied political science at Yale. You can follow him on Twitter @erichprince

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