Advice / all

“Don’t let the sticker price discourage you from applying [to college],” writes VOX ATL alum Terell Wright. “A lot of institutions do provide generous financial aid, grants, and scholarships due to their small student populations and high endowments. Make sure to research these opportunities before completely giving up on a college.” 

Above photo of Connecticut College by Terell Wright, VOX ATL alumnus contributor

As College Decisions Near, Focus Less on ‘Prestige’ and More on the School That Feels Right For You

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I remember going back home from my small college in New England for the first time. I sat on the Amtrak train as I reminisced of all the great times I had with my friends partying, studying, and the late-night talks we’d enjoyed. Knowing the home I had accumulated in a small Connecticut town 800 miles away from metro Atlanta was comforting. As I got to the airport, and finally boarded my flight, a second thought occurred. 

“What’s next for me?” 

This thought occurs every time I go home. Adult life outside of college is a much different reality. When you don’t have your friends and sidewalks to easily get anywhere on campus, you start to think about life outside of college, the value of your diploma, and whatever else might be going on in your life. I’ve always wanted to become a journalist and have been reporting since I was 13. It’s something that I love and want to continue to do for as long as I can. 

Aspiring journalists like myself know just how limited this job market is. Local journalism has continued to struggle, as newspapers have experienced declines in subscriptions for decades. National media is a whole other challenge. The job market is competitive and most available jobs are concentrated in select major cities, where the living costs are much higher. 

Power of ‘Prestige’

Students who want to write for national outlets like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post have a significantly harder chance of doing so if they do not have degrees from the nation’s most elite institutions. A 2018 study that was published by the Journal of Expertise surveyed 1,979 employees of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and found that half of the WSJ employees surveyed attended elite institutions, while 44% of NYT employees surveyed did as well.  

Right now, high school seniors across the nation are nearing the end of their college admission process and asking the same question of what’s next for them. Factors like tuition, campus aesthetics, and academic quality are on the minds of students choosing where they’ll spend the next four years of their life. 

Another factor that students use to select their college is the “prestige” of an institution. I certainly factored this in as well when making my decision. And with all honesty, students aren’t wrong to take how “elite” an institution is into account. 

Insane Tuition Prices

Social media has highlighted that if you look up various actors, politicians, journalists, and notable figures on Wikipedia, you often find they went to “elite” colleges that have low acceptance rates and extremely high tuition costs, costing upwards of $80,000 a year. If that tuition price sounds insane, it’s because it totally is. But unfortunately, these sticker prices are normal for “elite” institutions, that thousands of students seek to gain admission to. Private liberal arts institutions like Trinity College, Bates College, Wesleyan College, and (even my alma mater, which I truly love) Connecticut College all come with insane prices that normal families cannot afford. 

Although the Ivy Leagues provide generous aid to their middle and low-income students, they have acceptance rates that are more than halved compared to slightly less competitive liberal arts schools. 

A great question that I’m sure some have wondered, is ‘what is the need to attend an elite school when you can go to a public school or community college for a fraction of the cost?’ 

‘Elite’ Equals Access

The honest answer is that students like the veneer of prestige. When an “elite” diploma seemingly grants you access to the best education, job opportunities, and campuses in the world, it’s difficult to pass up on the opportunity when you receive an acceptance notification. Additionally, it’s hard to tell a high school kid, who barely even knows what a credit score is, that they should save and go to their local college, rather than taking out loans to receive a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to their dream school. 

Students who attend high-end liberal arts, elite research institutions, and Ivy Leagues tend to be much wealthier and well-positioned to take internships and research opportunities because they can afford low wages in large cities, due to parental financial support. This luxury is however not afforded to middle-class and lower-income students. They are forced to attend less “prestigious” state and local schools which do not hold the same cache as elite institutions.

The Problem With ‘Prestige’

This “prestige” barrier is a serious problem in our collegiate education system. It prevents talented students, who might come from less privileged racial and socioeconomic backgrounds from attending the school of their choice, and even worse, makes them feel less valuable for choosing ‘lesser’ local colleges. 

There’s a serious problem in the culture of how we view colleges. Ranking organizations like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and Niche use metrics that rank schools based on factors that have little to do with the actual quality of a school. 

Former president of Reed College, Colin Diver told the New York Times that the formula U.S. News & World Report has developed for its college rankings  tends to reward “wealth and reputation.” He adds that “Their endowments are at the top, their alumni giving is at the top, and their spending per student at is at the top. They’re the richest.”

Change Is Required

The process in which students apply and select schools fundamentally requires change. As thousands of students are sent their college decision letters in the next couple of weeks, it’s essential to focus less on the prestige of the institution, and more on where you feel at home. 

Of course, it’s important that the college you select looks to make sure their students not only succeed in the classroom but also after college when they’re looking for jobs. A great tool to use is the New York Times’s Economic and Student Diversity and Student Outcomes at American Colleges and Universities study

The data compiled from this metric might surprise some. The schools that provide the most upward mobility to lower and upper-middle-class students aren’t Harvard or Yale. Instead, public colleges like City College of New York and California State University rank as some of the highest-rated schools for upward mobility. 

No Regrets

While public colleges and universities make for great options, it’s also okay for students to want to attend elite colleges and universities. As a student of an overpriced elite school, I’ll be the first to admit that I have no regret choosing my college. The ability to take senior-level economics classes as a first-year student, design my own interdisciplinary degree, and enjoy lectures and discussions from some of the most dedicated and caring professors in the world, while making some of the best friends I’ve ever had is a true privilege. 

Don’t let the sticker price discourage you from applying. A lot of institutions do provide generous financial aid, grants, and scholarships due to their small student populations and high endowments. Make sure to research these opportunities before completely giving up on a college. 

Do Your Research

The college selection process should be about choosing the school that fits your needs and makes you feel most comfortable (I definitely recommend doing what I did — take an in-person tour of the campus before deciding). Rather than focusing on dated metrics that do the impossible tasks of rating a school, using a single number or letter grade to determine its worthiness, do what makes you feel best about making the right decision. Chances are, the school you pick will be the right one and the memories and experiences you have will validate that decision.



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comments (1)

  1. Maya

    Loved this, Terell.