The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ivy League mania warps students and colleges alike

New York teen's college acceptance celebration goes viral. (Video: Danielle Leach)
Placeholder while article actions load

T.M. Landry College Preparatory, a scrappy independent school in Breaux Bridge, La., gained fame over the past five years for sending many of its underprivileged African American students off to Ivy League colleges. The school’s YouTube videos of acceptance notifications frequently went viral (one, of an admission to Harvard, has been viewed more than 8 million times). Its inspirational students were fodder for feel-good morning TV shows.

But last month, the New York Times published a report that revealed Landry was not all it seemed. As it turned out, the school’s administration forged transcripts and confected harrowing life stories to appeal to college admissions officers, and abused its students in pursuit of high test scores while neglecting to teach some of the basics of writing and math. Its founder, Michael Landry, pitted black and white students against each other, forced students to kneel for long periods, and at times choked and hit them.

Even so, Landry remained defiant. “Write whatever you want to write about us,” he told a Times reporter. “But at the end of the day, my sister, if we got kids at Harvard every day, I’m going to fight for Harvard.”

The story is appalling, and it appeared at a moment when it is clear that our obsession with elite education is out of control. America’s deification of schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale distorts everything in their orbit — and far too much is.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

T.M. Landry was able to go unnoticed because it hid behind our most favored marker of success: Ivy League admissions. The school sent 50 graduates over five years to Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Brown, among other top universities, so it must have been doing something right. (Brett Kavanaugh went to Yale! Shouldn’t we all aspire?)

As it turns out, that was a misplaced marker of merit — but not an unusual one. Our obsession with admittance to this tiny set of schools warps both the colleges themselves and the students who apply.

Flooded with applicants, the Ivies are forced to use ever more arcane and indefensible methods to decide who gets in, perpetuating the inequities that it was once their mission to solve. Harvard University was recently sued for racial discrimination by a group of Asian American students — the case revealed that the school judges applicants on nebulous scores of “personality” that tend to favor some groups over others.

And to give themselves a chance in this labyrinth, high school applicants run themselves into the ground. Extracurricular activities crowd out actual childhoods. Acts of service morph into résumé bullet points, devoid of any greater significance. Wealthy parents buy tutors and countless hours of test prep to juice their children’s scores; less advantaged students often find themselves unable to catch up.

T.M. Landry took this to outrageous extremes. College applications were padded with invented achievements; students studied for standardized tests and nothing else, leaving them entirely unprepared for classes when they arrived at the universities to which they had gained admission. One student, whose Wesleyan University acceptance video went viral last year, felt too embarrassed to attend college classes and eventually withdrew. Said another: “If it wasn’t on the ACT, I didn’t know it.”

But the phenomenon is occurring everywhere, if to a lesser degree. To present their graduates as “college ready,” some high schools feel compelled to teach directly to tests. Who has time for civics when you’re studying for the SATs? Why luxuriate in a novel when you’ve got AP calculus to pass? But high scores don’t necessarily signify actual learning, and a focus on a few subjects can crowd out other kinds of education.

Elite schools retain their allure for one reason: the promise of opportunity in an increasingly unequal world. Disadvantaged parents enrolled their students at T.M. Landry because they thought that school — and its access to elite spaces — would give their children a fair shot in the world. Top firms still prefer to hire first from a tiny set of top-tier schools. As the paths to prosperity seem to narrow each day, we scramble to what seems like the rare sure thing.

It doesn’t need to be this way. The T.M. Landry story is an extreme example of Ivy League mania, but our obsession with these top schools should be less extreme as well. Opportunity exists outside of elite institutions; Harvard isn’t the only place where talent can thrive. What we need, however, is a reconsidering of our own misplaced veneration of a certain kind of success. Our understanding of what achievement looks like will have to expand.

Read more:

Mitch Daniels: For college admissions, let’s value grit over GPAs

Dalton Conley: Enough fretting over college admissions. It’s time for a lottery.

Charles Lane: Harvard can’t have it all

Jonathan Zimmerman: One group that definitely faces prejudice in college admissions