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The Selective University Myth*

Every year, organizations like U.S. News and Forbes publish their University rankings. Every year, universities like Harvard and Princeton come out on top, simultaneously ranked as the most selective schools. There is an inherent attraction to these highly selective schools. These are world-renowned institutes that ensure access to the global elite, the highly privileged. They also include a hefty price tag and incalculable years of strife and struggle for students who wish to gain admission. It cannot be argued that receiving a degree from these institutions doesn’t bring prestige. The mere names of these institutes on a resume can garner interviews and open doors like magic.

But is it worth it? The answer may surprise you.

Most universities in the US are decidedly NOT selective. More than 85% of colleges and universities accept more students than they reject. This should not be surprising. The U.S. tertiary education system relies on enrollment for survival and it’s not in schools best interest to turn down students who are willing to pay extraordinarily high tuition to earn degrees. In short, if you want a good college or university education, you are almost universally guaranteed to get one. (Provided you have the money.) It’s also worth noting that many universities and colleges deliberately game the system to have their institution rank higher. They employ a huge bag of tricks (such as not counting international admissions in their admissions rate) to ensure a higher score on these rankings.

Logically, one might assume there is a host of poor institutions that offer sub-par education willing to take your money. But nothing could be further from the truth. Generally speaking, you need not be a valedictorian or the top student in your class to gain acceptance. You just need to actively avoid being a bad student.

Ivy league schools are Ivy league for good reasons. Only a fool would denigrate these institutions and amazing history. But it’s worth remembering that physics, whether taught at your local community college or Princeton, is still the same physics. I attended graduate school at the City College of New York, and was shocked when I found out Michio Kaku worked there. To be able to casually stroll into the office of one of the most influential figures in popularization of string theory and quantum mechanics was quite a thrill. Many smaller, less known schools still have amazing research programs and impressive faculty. I’ve often admonished students to look for the program, not the school.

So, our 11th graders wrap up this year and prepare for the great college and university application process. I would encourage students and families to look at all options, not just the big names. If you are one of the lucky few who knows what you wish to study, this is one of the best routes. Look to see where the leaders of your chosen field teach. You may be surprised.

All that being said, we don’t discourage students from shooting for the moon. I’m proud of my students who have gone on to Ivy League schools. But no less proud of my students who went to state schools and community colleges.

*I apologize that this week’s article will be heavily focused on the US. I’m a licensed school counselor in Wisconsin so understandably my expertise is geared towards this region. Additionally, for readers who may not be familiar with the system, the terms college and university are, for all intents and purposes, practically interchangeable in the US.

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