Much ink has been spilled in recent months bemoaning the state of higher education in America, specifically the “elite” universities that populate the upper reaches of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The problems conveyed in these articles are myriad, but their biggest conclusion is that the competition to make it into institutions like Northwestern is destroying the schools’ stated purpose to serve as the world’s foremost higher educational institutions.
In some ways, the arguments made by articles like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” make valid, pressing points about higher education. It’s certainly true that the competition for a limited number of spots in the most selective universities has gotten out of hand in recent years, fueling a vicious cycle that compels students to apply to more schools than ever before. Meanwhile, subjective admissions standards have made the average student more anxiety-ridden about the entire process, with the thought of falling short of the assured success of an elite university admission a death-knell for many high school seniors.
While these criticisms are entirely fair, these articles also have the troubling tendency to make broad generalizations about the students populating America’s top schools. As one of these students, I find the criticisms are at best misunderstandings, and at worst great insults to myself and thousands of my peers. Instead of implicitly criticizing the students of elite universities like NU, commentators should focus their blame on the institutions themselves, which have the power to reform their ways.
In the New Republic article mentioned earlier (which is one story that has helped sparked this debate), author William Deresiewicz chides today’s students as “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” That’s a heady claim to make against tens of thousands of students who endured the grueling, gladiatorial competition that is modern college admissions. It’s also conveniently generous to previous generations of college students, ignoring the fact that entering college students have always been somewhat timid in the process of growing into their lives as independent adults. Nor does it acknowledge the innovation coming from many of today’s recent grads, such as Silicon Valley startups populated with some of the Millennial generation’s greatest minds.
Another complaint made by author Steven Pinker is that students fail to prioritize their classwork, ditching classes in the name of extracurriculars. There’s certainly plenty of proof of this at Northwestern, where having a deep commitment to at least two clubs seems to come with the territory.
Where this criticism falls flat is the assertion that “most would be classified in any other setting as recreation.” For one, many activities at NU are better educators than a student’s actual schoolwork, something I’ve encountered as extracurricular writing has challenged me more than some Medill classes. This argument also ignores the reality that many students simply cannot focus their entire energy on classwork — and maintain sanity. While participating in Happiness Club may not teach a pre-med student necessary skills in their advance to med school, there’s no saying that student would have endured the pressures of Northwestern without the release valve provided by their favorite club.
Certainly, the complaints made against elite universities and their students merit consideration. However, blaming kids for making the best of a rat race to get into universities they were taught from birth to aspire to makes about as much sense as blaming marine life for getting their heads stuck in six-pack rings that end up in the ocean.
One sticking point that multiple authors have brought up is the glut of meaningless but important-sounding leadership opportunities in which high school students engage to boost their likelihood of admission. I can attest to the fact that any college application requires some level of creative liberty (in my case, I checked out of French Club well before my official time as co-president ended).
But ask any Northwestern student about their most rewarding high school extracurricular activities, and you’re bound to get a glut of responses, from campaign work to debate club to elementary school tutoring. While someone can accuse us of being involved for the sake of bolstering our resumes and college apps, chances are most of us were genuinely interested in the activities we pursued. Proof: Many of us are still pursuing those activities at NU. My love of journalism has only grown greater thanks to the ability to pursue it extracurricularly in college. Just because they helped us get admitted into a selective school doesn’t make our engagements any less real or meaningful. The focus of these critical articles should not be the students, but the institutions themselves.
People should pay attention to the necessary reforms that are well within reach for many universities. Despite massive endowments, many elite universities still fail to prioritize financial aid, leaving low and middle-income families on the hook for thousands in loans per year. Meanwhile, President Obama’s call to begin grading universities for their affordability could slow the skyrocketing of tuition across the board. Before any of this happens, college critics should understand that elite colleges may not be perfect, but blaming students for their problems is simply wrong.