The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our dangerous obsession with Harvard, Stanford and other elite universities

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

It’s that time of year again, when high-school seniors receive their college acceptances and sift through financial-aid offers to pick the place where they are going to spend the next four years in college. It’s also the time when seemingly everyone involved in the college search process — from the media to school counselors — are obsessed with the admissions decisions Harvard and dozens of other selective colleges and universities have made.

Last week, Ben Casselman writing at and Frank Bruni in the New York Times, exposed the absurdity of our obsession with Harvard, Stanford, and the other colleges that reject most of their applicants. As Casselman rightly pointed out, just 4 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. attend institutions that accept 25 percent or less of their applicants, “and hardly any — well under 1 percent — attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent.”

Applied to Stanford or Harvard? You probably didn’t get in. Admit rates drop, again.

Sure, the Ivy League, along with Stanford, the University of Chicago, Duke, and a few elite public universities such as the University of Michigan, UC-Berkeley, and UNC-Chapel Hill are the pride of the American higher-education system around the world. But focusing on them in media coverage of higher education, in the halls of Congress or statehouses, and especially in guidance offices in high schools, is dangerous for our future.

For one, it sends a message to prospective students and parents that getting into college is difficult, if not impossible. But the reality is just the opposite. Half of the colleges and universities in the United States have become less selective during the past 50 years, according to research by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby.

Even for students and parents who know the higher-education world exists beyond Amherst, Princeton, and Yale, the perception that success in life is tied to your undergraduate alma mater unnecessarily raises the anxiety level of high-school seniors every year. That idea is just plain wrong.

If you don’t believe me, read Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Even as I reported my new book, There Is Life After College, the evidence is overwhelming that success after college depends more on how you approach your undergraduate years than where you go.

[The three most important questions to ask in finalizing the college decision]

Second, our obsession with elite colleges bleeds into the hiring practices at companies. The signal of a degree has always been stronger the more selective the school. Bigger employers are now increasingly using “people analytics” in hiring to determine the pedigree of their best employees, and to their surprise they are finding they don’t always come from elite schools. As a result, many are revamping their recruitment practices and hiring from a wider swath of college and universities.

[Regional public colleges — the ‘middle children’ of higher ed — struggle to survive]

Large companies already appear to favor schools outside of the elites. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal asked recruiters at nearly 500 of the largest companies, nonprofits, and government agencies, which schools they liked the best and trusted the most when looking for new college graduates. The top five? Penn State, Texas A&M, the University of Illinois, Purdue, and Arizona State — all public universities. The only private school in the top 10 was Carnegie Mellon (at No. 10) and the only Ivy League institution in the top 25 was Cornell, at No. 14.

Finally, our focus on a few dozen schools sways public policy at the state and federal level, particularly when it comes to government aid to students and institutions. We tend to view all of higher education through the prism of private institutions (the vast majority of the top 25 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings are private). Yet, 80 percent of American students go to public colleges and universities.

This focus on elite privates during the past decade or so has masked the massive downward shift in taxpayer support for public colleges. Ten years ago, college students and their families paid for about one-third of the cost of their education at public colleges. Today, in nearly half of the states, they pay for more than half of their education.

Even among the publics, the state flagships seem to get all the attention, particularly in state houses. But 40 percent of all undergraduates in the United States attend regional public colleges. There are nearly 400 of them, many tucked into out-of-the-way corners of their states. By comparison, the better-known public flagship universities enroll just 20 percent of students.

As we enter April, a month of high anxiety for high-school seniors thinking about college, we need to frame the debate about higher education to ensure the survival of a system that has been the envy of the world for generations.