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Best of the Average, or Average Among the Best? The Case for State vs. Ivy

“Why don’t you add a couple more safe schools” is a line all seniors applying to college have heard and dread hearing.  We hear the fear in the voice of our counselors and loved ones when we tell them we are striving for the best: the Ivies.   “I’ve gotten straight A’s through high school, have high test scores, and am qualified” is something an Ivy Leaguer might say. They’re not wrong. On paper they seem qualified and ready for an Ivy-league-experience, but how will they deal once accepted? Will they even be accepted? The month of December for high school students applying to college is one word: stressful.  The anxiety is everywhere, building up as students refresh their college portal pages, check the mail the minute it arrives, and bombard the college office with questions. Will the top students from our high school be the top students at their college? Or should we as a community encourage places other than Ivies where we know students will succeed? Our society should be less worried about the acceptance, and more worried about the aftermath and our success rate in college.  

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Although this study claims that students are more likely to graduate from an elite school, many students have found it hard to even stay in those schools and keep up with their work.  Author Nathan Heller gives some background on in his piece from The New Yorker, stating: “Most students at élite schools knew what they were getting into long before they actually got in.”  Yes, it is true that students applying to Ivies are aware of the rigor of the curriculum offered, but to what extent?  Admission to these elite schools is harder than ever, and with that comes increased difficulty in the curriculum. Richard Pérez-Peña said in his piece for The New York Times, “Several universities, including Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, had admission rates this year that were less than half of those from a decade ago. The University of Chicago’s rate plummeted to a little over 8 percent, from more than 40 percent.”  Students who are trying to go to these schools know the uphill battle they will face once they are admitted.  But what are the benefits?  Many students think that enrollment in an elite school will guarantee them a job in their desired field. Many will rely on their fellow Ivy alums to help them find jobs. It is ironic therefore that the biggest and best alumni network is that of Penn State University, a public, state college. (Information below shown in graph)  Teri Evans claims in a piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms.”  As seen below, the top 5 schools for recruiting include only state schools, and no elite Ivies. 

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One of the main benefits to not going to an elite private school is money. As many of us know, the college process is stressful and trying.  Many think that this stress will dissipate after acceptance, but now comes the harder stuff:  paying for an education and planning how to pay off student loans.  An anonymous author wrote in a piece showcased on titled “Why I choose a State School Over an Ivy League” that, during her experience, she ultimately made her decision based on schools that would potentially give her a scholarship and weren’t astronomically priced.   This author writes, “The most tangible reason for my decision was money. As the majority of college seniors know, elite private institutions carry a hefty price tag; estimated yearly costs often total around $40,000…Merit-based aid was my only hope, and most private universities generally dole out need-based financial aid, not merit-based. As a public institution, Ohio State’s in-state estimated yearly costs of $13,000–$14,000 are nearly one-third those of many private universities.” Not only do students have to worry about receiving financial aid, but they also have to go through the process of realizing that it may not be possible for them to go to their dream schools. For many, this is a harsh reality.

There are a many distinctions between private and public universities.  One is how these schools are funded.  Most public universities were founded by the government (in given state), and funded by the government and through a board of trustees. Private universities, however, rely on tuition, private contributions, and donations.  While on a college visit, my dad pointed out to me the difference in landscaping between the University of Georgia (public) and Emory University (private).  He pointed out how nicely maintained the grounds were at Emory, and the overall cleanliness of the campus.  At Georgia, this same standard did not apply.  This really opened my eyes to the differences between campuses with different budgets.  “There are definitely things about private, elite universities that are appealing, but the same with public; it all depends on what kind of student and person you are,” said a current senior who asked not to be named.

Another important distinction between private elite schools and public universities are class size.  Coming from Friends, students have the ability to have one-on-one relationships with their teachers, along with small class sizes that encourage conversation and participation. At a public university, some classes have up to 200 students, with only the opportunity for extra help occurring during your professors’ office hours.  This could be a hard transition for many of us who are used to a smaller environment.

A private or public university is a great choice. Your college experience will be based on what you can do for the school and what the school can do for you.  Remember when picking schools to look for things that will make you feel comfortable and content, and find a place where you can be the best version of yourself. 


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