The Ivy Myth

I don’t get the appeal of the Ivy League.  It’s a luxury brand, I get it.  But most luxury brands, like Rolex watches or Coach bags, have really incredible products.  The only distinctions about the Ivy League that I discern are an early founding year and a common football league.  Rutgers’ biggest branding error was leaving the Ivy League because the football competition wasn’t strong enough.  

This current crisis has brought to light the values of the Ivy League.  Before any other college presidents commented on the crisis, Brown University President Christina Paxon wrote in a NY Times editorial “College Campuses Must Open in the Fall: Here’s How We Do It” stated plans to reopen must accept “the reality that there will be upticks or resurgences in infection” but that the “vast majority of residential college students will experience only mild symptoms if they contract the coronavirus”.  Her recommendation to open was based on a very shaky assumption:

Testing is an absolute prerequisite. All campuses must be able to conduct rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students, when they first arrive on campus and at regular intervals throughout the year. Testing only those with symptoms will not be sufficient.

The true cost is not in the education of students; it is the economic loss:  “this loss, only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic,” she wrote.

There was no mention of the cost to the millions of families as these minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic students disperse on winter break.  So if I’m getting this right, we are risking sending super-spreaders to every city and town in America, risking the lives of millions of elderly, immunocompromised, and other at-risk individuals because of the potential cost to colleges:  “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close,” she wrote, “it’s how many.”

The ability to conduct safe student admissions testing is in question, so the far majority of colleges including most of those considered extremely selective, have announced they are going to be testing optional for the high school class of 2021.  It was the sensitive thing to do for students, who were already so anxious about junior year grades, which at many schools were pass/fail, and the inability to participate in extracurricular or community service activities or sports.  As of today, only one Ivy League college, Cornell (which is also partially a state college) has stated they are test optional for juniors.  On a recent college admissions elist, the only colleges that were known to refuse deferrals for seniors next fall were from the Ivy League.

I went to a small, highly selective liberal arts college.  After graduating, I had a chance to take a Harvard undergraduate course on the Psychology of Depression, taught by a national expert on childhood depression.  The syllabus was a mess of random articles and books.  Each day the professor would fumble through papers to decide what to lecture on that day.  I never had nor would ever expect to have a class like this at my college and this experience, by conversations I have had with students attending Ivy League colleges, was not unusual.  

The values of the Ivy League toward their students and society at large is on display and it is not a pretty picture.  


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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