Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Dear Brother: Go Wherever You Want for College

This is part 1 of a 4-part series addressed to the author's brother, discussing the author's perspective on "elite education".

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Dear brother,

Congratulations on making it through three years of that purgatory called high school! Soon you'll be getting up close and personal with that great Millenial coming-of-age ritual: the one where you and a few dozen people you've never met conspire to decide what sort of weather and dining hall food you'll be enjoying (or cursing) for four years of your life.

You're going to get a lot of advice on how to navigate the next year or so. Unfortunately, not all of it will be good. One day, I'll try to organize my own thoughts on the matter, but today, I feel compelled to rebut a refrain I've heard echoed far too often recently.

The fundamental complaint is that "elite" education (for some definition) leaves students with empty credentials at the expense of true learning, and that graduating high school students have better options for learning to become citizens of the twenty-first century. I contend that this is mostly stereotype and sensationalism -- at least, my own experience at the elitest of elite schools has been overwhelmingly positive.

I fear you are already familiar with the charges that William Deresiewicz, writing for the New Republic, recently leveled (seemingly indiscriminately) against the whole of the elite-education-industrial-complex:

  • that the preparations required for an "elite college" are, on the whole, soul-destroying;
  • that the admissions process is completely, hopelessly rigged;
  • that the student body is firstly, invariably "entitled little shits", and secondly, enslaved to some abstract myth of excellence;
  • that the same students are four years hence thrust into the world tragically unprepared to meet the challenges of harsh, complicated reality.

Oh, and that the staggering cost of tuition will leave you bankrupt for an enormous portion of your adult life.

In short, I believe that each of these claims is partly true and largely false, and that none is a good reason to avoid getting an education at Harvard. Though I do believe that there are several good reasons one might avoid an Ivy schooling, I've found my first two years of college to be an intensely gratifying intellectual and social experience, wherein I have learned to put aside expectations to pursue the things I love, surrounded by largely level-headed classmates following their own passions. I expect to graduate socially, morally, and -- yes -- fiscally prepared to change, and what's more, live in, the real world. If you choose to join me here, I expect you'll find the same.

I'll try to address Deresiewicz's points one by one, starting with the simplest: that the cost of college is, to recycle a phrase, too damn high.

The first two paragraphs of this section reference the socioeconomic status that you and I grew up with -- roughly, comfortable-middle-class -- though I do understand that other readers (like other Harvard students!) come from different backgrounds. I'm not presuming to make general statements applicable to most students until paragraph three, so don't say I didn't warn you.

Remember when we went away to sleepaway nerd camp? For three weeks, on the campus of a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, we slept in college dorms, ate meals in the dining hall, and had classes five days a week with university professors and brilliant classmates. It was a fantastic, literally life-changing experience for both of us, as I recall.

College costs about as much as CTY did. Of course, instead of doing it for three weeks, you do it for four years, so it kind of adds up, but per-week? You're paying about the same for...about the same thing, really. If your family's fortunate, it's not necessarily an easy sum to pay, but it's a manageable one, and the whole deal doesn't have to require signing yourself into crushing debt.

If it really is more than your family can afford to pay, then, well...it's still okay. Any college that makes the "elite" shortlist has enough money that they'll be able to provide financial aid for (lots of, if not all) students in need. What with a shiny new $150M donated last year to support up to fund 200 scholarships and support 600 more, financial aid at Harvard isn't exactly stingy. And from all I can tell, the other Ivies are likewise; they would rather you graduate without debt (debt-yoked alumni are unhappy alumni, and unhappy alumni don't donate), and are willing to write off up to 100% of your tuition bill to make that happen.

One warning, though: the champions of "real educational values" that Deresiewicz recommends unqualifiedly, the "second-tier -- not second-rate -- colleges like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others..." are every bit as expensive (in pre-aid sticker price), and significantly less able to provide financial aid. This is where horror stories of twenty-somethings graduating with six significant figures of permanent, undefaultable debt are born.

So if you're heading for a small liberal arts college, do check twice that you're not signing away your firstborn in the deal...or are actually able to pay the full quarter-million out-of-pocket. Ironically, at more "elite" schools, there will be more of your fellow students representing a third option: not wealthy enough to afford college, but financially safe thanks to financial aid.

Tomorrow, I'll get to my second challenge to "The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies", and actually start grappling with the difficult points Deresiewicz raises. In the mean time, here's a response (more like a review) from a former Dean of Harvard College: "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" (where I went and then taught).

This is part 1 of a 4-part series addressed to the author's brother, discussing the author's perspective on "elite education".

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