Some years ago, I worked in an office where the majority of my colleagues were also twenty-something alumni of universities highly ranked by U.S. News. One of my closest confidantes in that office was, however, a woman in her early forties who was taking evening courses at National Louis University for her first degree. She sometimes accused me of feeling superior to her simply because I held a degree from Northwestern.
“The fact that I’m graduating from National Louis and you graduated from Northwestern does not mean that you have a better education than me or are entitled to any more than I am,” she blurted out one afternoon.
Baffled, I replied: “I’ve never said that I feel superior to you because I went to Northwestern.”
“But you’re always talking about Northwestern!,” she retorted. “You bring up the fact that you went to Northwestern any chance you get.”
Later, one of our colleagues who had overheard the conversation muttered to me: “Of course you’re better because you went to Northwestern. Northwestern and National Louis are leagues apart.”
Another colleague then volunteered this much more thoughtful insight: “You didn’t just graduate from Northwestern. You lived there for the first few years of your adult life. You also ate there, loved there, slept there AND worked there. Of course you speak of it often; it’s where you really grew up.”
The truth is that because I spent at least a year of my life at each of them, I consider all of the schools I’ve attended major attributes of my personal brand – from Metcalfe Magnet School in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, where the other students and I lived in constant fear of gunfire, to the University of Chicago, where fear of gunfire is not absent either. There are even times when I consider my Metcalfe experience a more positive influence on my life than the University of Chicago. Similarly, one applicant I advise may come to find that culinary school is a better fit for him than the University of Pennsylvania was, while another may discover that intellectual diversity had been awaiting her for years at the University of Washington in Seattle while she was searching for it at Harvard.
And that’s just one of the reasons why I’m cautious about promoting salivation over the Ivy League.
Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an interview with William Deresiewicz – author of a New Republic essay blanket-warning parents against sending their children to Ivy League schools. I disagree with the blanket warning on the grounds that many of the people I’ve advised are now creative, well-adjusted adults who hail from Ivies, and I’m likely to advise many of my future clients to pursue education at an Ivy especially if they’d prefer the degree most likely to be recognized as they interview for jobs around the world. That said, Deresiewicz makes a few good points between the essay and the interview. I’m incorporating them into my own shortlist of signs that Ivy League is worse than poison ivy for you:
1. An Ivy League school may be bad for you if your main motivation for going is to walk, sheep-like, in the footsteps of one of its famous graduates or dropouts. I mean, come on. You spent way too many years differentiating yourself from everyone else to begin adulthood by embracing the idea that the way to be successful is to do exactly what someone else did.
2. It will certainly be bad for you if you view it as the culmination of all your achievements but expect to live a long time after college. Outside of academia, the world of work is unfathomably large and notions of prestige are much more diversified. If your mental health is contingent upon the validation you receive from telling people you attended an Ivy, then you’ll really struggle for sanity when – five or ten years after college – your boast of that credential is only met with dismissal for snobbery.
3. It may introduce more problems to your life than it resolves if you’ve been thriving in environments that have more in common with each other than they do with any Ivy League school, but imagine that because other people claim those environments aren’t “good enough” for you, you need to pursue education at an Ivy that’s the polar opposite of where you’ve already thrived.
4. It will at least disappoint you if you assume that simply by enrolling, you’ll be endowed by association with the ability to change the world. Mission-driven people should pursue education at institutions that allow them the space and time to pursue their personal goals and host faculty and administration dedicated to aiding them in their pursuits. Sometimes those institutions are Ivies. Often they’re not Ivies. I know a professor at DePaul University who’s highly dedicated to his students largely because the pressure on him to focus on elevating his department’s profile through accolades is less intense there than it would be at more prestigious universities.
5. Your Ivy League education won’t be optimal if you’ve always dreamed of being a chef, a fashion designer, a screenwriter or some other professional whose dreams Not. Ivy. programs are much more committed to realizing. Sure, talent in those industries emerges from Ivies, but they might have found career success much earlier if their colleges (and in many cases, graduate programs) were able to facilitate it.
6. It may ruin you if you haven’t afforded any thought to where else you could go or what else you could do. I know someone who applied early decision to the University of Pennsylvania and enrolled. Thirteen years later, she still doesn’t have a college degree, and she incessantly laments her relegation to clerical work. By experimenting in her mother’s kitchen some years after dropping out of Penn, this woman discovered that she may be the mistress of all cupcake makers. In other words, since she didn’t network with Wharton students (who could’ve become investors in her pastry enterprise) while she was still enrolled at Penn, she should probably seek Kickstarter crowdfunding for a food truck now.
I hope this all addresses any lingering suspicions that I’m a “school snob.” 😉 Readers: Whether National Louis is a better fit for you than the University of Pennsylvania, or whether you made the overall mistake of enrolling at the University of Chicago and now need guidance in gaining admission to culinary school or developing a Plan B, I’m here to support you. Just be honest about yourself with me so that we can confidently pursue your goals. (And by “your goals,” I don’t mean the goals that any other person or entity has for you!)
Founder of The Precocious Urchin Co.