The Problem With Prestige

By: Ashleigh Lustgarten

College admissions, the two most daunting, mysterious, and stressful words for the average high school senior. Every year, students stress over applications, only to anxiously await the fateful decisions from their top schools. Some are rewarded with overstuffed congratulatory envelopes while others are met with devastating rejection notes. 

At competitive high schools like Garnet Valley, many seniors are trying their luck to get into the most prestigious colleges in the nation, from selective public schools like the University of Michigan to even more selective privates like MIT. Unfortunately, more often than not, students applying to prestigious institutions such as these are faced with disappointment when they are not admitted. 

What is the grand appeal of these schools that have admission rates that dip into the single digits? Are these schools really students’ “dream schools”, or are seniors just attracted to the name? 

“Juniors look at [college] rankings and put schools on their list only because of the ranking,” Mr. Salladino, the GVHS college and career counselor, says. “Senior year they start to do a little more research and find out which schools are the best fit for them and which don’t make sense.” 

The research part is key. Before spending time and money on an application for a competitive school, it’s important to know that the school offers a compatible program and experience. Cost of attendance is certainly something seniors need to take into consideration, for prestige comes at a price. 

“I was worried about the high price [when I applied to UPenn],” Stephanie May, a GVHS senior, says. “I was worried I would go into debt if I went.” 

Salladino explains that schools that are not so tuition-dependent (meaning they have big endowments) like Duke are more likely to give generous aid, but many of these schools, such as the ivy leagues, do not give merit-based aid. Most students who want to attend these competitive schools have to be willing to pay at least the majority of the sticker price. 

“Even though some schools have a reputation, a less prestigious school may be a better fit for you [because they] offer more scholarships,” Rachel Sokalsky, another GVHS senior, says.

In addition to the cost, a prestigious environment may not be for everyone. Competitive schools tend to have a more challenging course load and a more competitive student body. One survey done by the Humans of University found a list of the top 50 schools with the highest student-body depression rates—not surprisingly, every ivy league school was within the top 20 of that list. 

“I would not attend [an ivy league school] because I feel like we constantly hear about the amount of pressure ivy league students are put under,” Rachel Sokalsky says. “I don’t think that’s something I could handle.” 

Of course, some students thrive in a more competitive environment and are pushed by their hardworking peers to excel in their studies, and prestigious schools do have a reputation for breeding success in the work field. 

“[A competitive environment] is good because people are more driven and focused on their goals,” Stephanie May says. “But, [the students there] might be more serious and less focused on making friends, having fun, and extracurriculars.” 

Unfortunately, even if a senior does decide that the price and environment of a prestigious school are suitable, not many get an ivy league degree to boast about. Take the University of Pennslyvania; last year, according to their website, UPenn had 56,332 applicants and only admitted 3,304. That’s an admit rate of 5.9%. It seems almost everyone wants to get in, but, why when there are thousands of other institutions out there? 

“UPenn has a prestigious business school, my major, so that makes it more attractive,” Stephanie May says. “You might get jobs if the college prestige is higher because [employers] are attracted to the names.” 

Prestige is undeniably enticing and often synonymous with intelligence and qualifications. Does that mean that the thousands of applicants that get rejected from these schools aren’t good enough? Not at all. 

What many don’t realize is that sometimes, thousands of perfectly qualified candidates get rejected for reasons beyond merit. In many cases, it comes down to the fact that colleges need to make money. According to the book Who Gets In and Why by Jefferey Selingo, the most selective colleges admit more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half. This could explain why the student bodies at these schools also happen to be predominantly wealthy and white. 

“You hear that these schools [like the ivies] are for the elite families,” Salladino says. “I feel there’s some truth to that.” 

It should be noted that these schools are making efforts to increase ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. However, as Jeffery Selingo explains in his book, schools need to admit a certain number of students who have the means to pay in full before they can give aid to those who can’t. 

“College is a business at the end of the day,” Salladino discloses. “They need to pay their bills.” 

Altogether, admissions into prestigious schools are not a flawless meritocracy. Not getting into “the dream school” or not having the grades to be a quality candidate can be devastating to any high school senior. But, it’s good to keep in mind that there are thousands of quality schools out there that will gladly admit most students and will guide them towards their future careers. 

 “Do your homework; do your research. Find out what the job placement rate is,” Salladino advises. “A lot of colleges out there accept 50% or more, but people don’t focus on those schools; they focus on the schools in the top 1% that have an admit rate under 10%.” 

In the end, the student makes the experience. If they’re engaged, hardworking, and take advantage of all the opportunities provided by their school, they will enjoy success in the work field, prestigious college or not. 

“You can pretty much go to any of these schools and get a great education, get a great job, and live a meaningful life,” Salladino says.  

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