Can we stop obsessing on the Ivy League?


Stanford University (Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Have you heard yet about 17-year-old Kwasi Enin of Shirley, N.Y., who applied to all of the eight schools in the Ivy League and got into every single one? If not, you are, by now, the only one.

The William Floyd High School senior told Newsday that he couldn’t believe it when, one right after the other, the Ivy League schools — Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University — all welcomed him into the class of 2018.

Congratulations to Kwasi Enin. Now can we stop talking about him?

We might as well also congratulate Avery Coffey, 17, a senior at D.C.’s Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, who was admitted to all five of the Ivy League schools – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown — to which he applied, according to MyFoxDC.com. Well done. But that’s enough.

It isn’t easy to get into the Ivy League, everybody knows; the admission rate this year was 8.925641 percent, rounding to the nearest millionth of a percentage point, according to this story by my colleague Nick Anderson, and the schools aren’t shy about telling the world about it. Princeton University issued a news release with this headline: “Princeton offers admission to 7.28 percent of applicants.” The lowest admit rate in the Ivy League was Harvard, at 5.9 percent, but as it turns out, Stanford University on the West Coast had an even lower percentage — 5.07 (the .07 is important), the lowest in the school’s storied history.

Now that we’ve settled that,  can schools reconsider sending out the annual brag sheet about all those kids who didn’t get in? And can we please stop talking about who got into the Ivy League, or Stanford, or any other school? You’d think with all the emphasis put on these schools that lots of kids go there. They don’t. In fact, the percentage of kids who go to highly selective schools is a very tiny percentage of the teens who go to college. Way less than 1 percent.

Furthermore, college admissions have become something akin to a crap shoot. It used to be that college admissions counselors could predict which students would get in where. Now they can’t. A release summarizing the 2013 State of College Admissions report issued by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling said:

The report also suggests that that U.S. post-secondary institutions are less able to predict enrollment trends today than they were 10 years ago, as evidenced by declining “yield rates” — the number of accepted applicants that ultimately decide to attend a college—as well as the increasing numbers of students placed on wait lists.

Talented kids who have figured out how to cure a disease or time travel get rejected from schools just as often as they get accepted.  And there’s this: The low admit races have a lot to do with the enormous number of applications schools receive but many, if not most, come from students who aren’t close to being qualified.

Kids today apply to more colleges than kids of yesterday, so schools get more applications. And as many admissions deans will tell you, admission to a school doesn’t mean that a particular student is “better” than other applicants but that he/she fits into a particular spot in the college’s overall demographics scheme. If a student is a piano virtuoso but there are two in the applicant pool and the school wants a violinist, one of the pianists is out of luck. That’s really the way it works.

In polite company most people prefer not to talk about their salaries or their sex lives. Can we add — except among family and close friends — where kids got into college?

For those young people who didn’t get into the schools they wanted, they can take to heart these words of the late David Nyhan who wrote a now famous Boston Globe column in 1987 that was later updated called “The college rejection letter” that says in part:

Look at some people who’ve accomplished a lot and see where they started. Ronald Reagan? Eureka College. Jesse Jackson? They wouldn’t let him play quarterback in the Big Ten, so he quit Illinois for North Carolina A & T. Do you know that the recently retired chairmen and CEOs of both General Motors and General Electric graduated from UMass? Bob Dole? He went to Washburn Municipal University.

The former minority leader of the United States Senate, Tom Daschle, went to South Dakota State. The former speaker of the US House of Representatives, J. Dennis Hastert, went to Northern Illinois University. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, took a bachelor’s degree from Jamestown College. Winston Churchill? He was so slow a learner that they used to write to his mother to come take this boy off our hands.

I know what you think: Spare me the sympathy. It still hurts. But let’s keep this in perspective. What did Magic Johnson say to the little boy who also tested HIV positive? ”You’ve got to have a positive attitude.” What happens when you don’t keep a positive attitude? Don’t ask.

Who needs bling? 10 prom dresses made out of duct tape.

GALLERY: The best commencement speakers of the year

(Update: Noting in this version that the Nyhan column was originally written in 1987 and updated later.)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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