High school students are usually told by college counselors that there are a myriad of colleges and universities of different sizes, focuses and strengths across the country from which they can find the right school — and that is most certainly true. But anybody serious about college admissions knows that Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Stanford and some other “special” schools are seen as being “better” whether or not they meet the needs of every student. Obsession with prestige schools has become so acute that one counselor, Brennan Barnard, says the college admissions process today is lost in a sea of cultural capital. Here’s a post about this from Barnard, director of college counseling at The Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for Grades 6-12 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

By Brennan Barnard

“Oh … and Harvard,” she adds nonchalantly — almost sheepishly — rounding out the list of 10 colleges to which she plans to apply.

“Great, another safety school,” I say sarcastically with a grin. “Tell me more about that. Why the addition?”

“Because it is Harvard,” she replies, “plus my parents want me to apply.”

“Oh, did one of them attend?” I inquire.

“No, but it is Harvard,” she repeats louder and slower, as though I am either hard of hearing or a tad slow.

And it is that simple, application number 39,044 for the class of 2020 at this Ivy League institution, the Shangri-La of collegiate prestige. As the young woman’s college counselor, I am unfazed by her high aspirations and completely confident in her potential. Despite her achievement, I am trying to reconcile Harvard as an outlier on an application list that has been restricted to small, rural, liberal arts colleges. By her own admission, she does not care for cities and wants a school with less than 2,500 students (Harvard has 10,338 undergraduates). But it is Harvard!

Last month the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions.” This extensive document draws focus on the messages college admission offices and other key “stakeholders” send about what is valued in the application process. Ethical and intellectual engagement, citizenship, diversity, access and the common good — what’s not to love?   Those who authored and endorsed this report are to be applauded for their call for a kinder more holistic admission process, accentuating the values we hope to celebrate in young people.

While this focus can certainly help turn the tide, it is the final recommendation in the report — seemingly an afterthought — that deserves our attention. We must help students not only redefine the meaning of, and motivation behind, achievement, service and engagement. We must also encourage people — young and old — to reassess what they value in a college experience and how this correlates with success and happiness.

The last of three areas of focus in the report suggests: “Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.” The final recommendation in this area is:

Recommendation #5: Expanding Students’ Thinking about “Good” Colleges
Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success. It is incumbent upon parents to challenge this misconception as well. There is a broad range of excellent colleges across the country, and students who attend these colleges are commonly successful later in life in the full array of professions. There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.

Frank Sachs, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counselors, once said, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” As professionals, we believe this, but how do we sell this idea in a culture that is obsessed with status, appearance and external recognition?

For example, if the “Turning the Tide” report had been released from an obscure institution, would it have made as much of a splash? Would we have read about the report in the The Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal? Unlikely. The media coverage of this important document is itself a statement about Harvard’s prestige, highlighting the need to unpack the report’s final recommendation and examine the cultural hurdles that exist in defining “good” colleges.

I have worked with hundreds of students who are intellectually and ethically engaged for all the right reasons. They are curious, kind, bright and thoughtful, and they appreciate — and actively seek—diverse perspectives. These students are intentional about extracurricular involvement and follow their passions while making significant contributions to family and community. Any college or university would be fortunate to have such students on campus.

Those supporting these students can reinforce this authentic goodness and present the many options in higher education. However, regardless of how centered, genuine and deliberate students are about their choices in high school, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and their ultra-selective brethren are still perceived to be the keys to success in life. There is an inherent yearning that is hard to delineate, like an acceptance to these institutions is the ultimate validation that a person is good enough or maybe even “better.”

Clearly, then, Harvard’s high quality education isn’t really the point, whatever students might say. What high school — public or private — does not want Harvard University prominently displayed on their college acceptance list? Likewise, businesses and organizations tout the number of employees with Ivy League degrees or similar pedigree from highly selective colleges.

The point is that without acknowledgment of these unspoken desires and ultimately intangible qualities, the tide can never actually turn; all efforts at authenticity will ultimately prove disingenuous.  Without bringing the desire for status into the open–naming it–we can never truly pursue our goals, our actual individual needs, in a honest, discerning way.

Every field, profession, sector or product has its pinnacle, flagship, zenith or icon of excellence, but American colleges go beyond this principle. Rolls Royce and Lamborghini make some impressive luxury vehicles but if I am going off road, give me a Toyota truck any day. Why don’t we think this way — about practical value — when it comes to colleges?

The cultural capital in admission is disproportionately held by the top ranked colleges and universities with the lowest admit rates, that garner the most press. Our current system works to perpetuate this cycle of selectivity and prestige with an unhealthy fixation on this handful of institutions. Change happens from both the outside in and the inside out. Employers, the media, popular culture and college applicants must not rush to judgment or default to perception. Meanwhile, the college admission profession must re-examine the messages we send and the processes we create that perpetuate this unbalanced system. As parents and educators, we must raise children who think critically about brand, marketing, success, happiness, fulfillment and personal choice.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously dreamed that his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Let us apply this same appeal to college admission and start drawing out the character of a school and not the assumed cultural capital that it propagates. Until we can state, “because it’s Hampshire” with the same presumption of quality that we assign Harvard, the tide will continue to flow outward. In the meantime, I will continue to swim against the current, encouraging students to define what is “good” for their goals, whether that is Harvard, Hartwick, Hampshire, Hunter, Hamilton, Hendrix, Hofstra, Hope, Harcum, Haverford, Hobart, Hampden-Sydney, Hartford, or Harvey Mudd.