Parents, you feel a lot of pressure to get your kids into a “good” college after high school. An “Ivy League” university would be ideal! But is all the work and stress really worth it?
Probably not, honestly.
William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life has a fascinating take on this question.
In his controversial New Republic article, Deresiewicz tells parents that Ivy League schools are overrated — that they’d be better off sending their kids elsewhere.
Here are the top 9 most jolting things I got out of Deresiewicz’s article:
1. The intense competition to get into an elite school can hobble a child for life.
“These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood,” Deresiewicz writes. “But the reality is very different . . . . Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
2. Constant focus on elite, Ivy League education can result in soul-crushing levels of insecurity, anxiety, and fear for students.
One young woman wrote to Deresiewicz about her boyfriend at Yale: “Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.” Deresiewicz gets it. “Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment,” he says, “and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.”
Is this kind of educational experience worth going $100,000 into debt for? I wonder.
3. The path to and through elite education can result in kids who are terrified of risk.
Deresiewicz puts it this way: “So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.”
4. If you really want to help kids learn how to think—the main boast of elite schools—you may be better off sending your child to a small regional religious school that nobody’s ever heard of.
Deresiewicz says this: “Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job (when it comes to teaching kids to think). What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.”
5. The classes at elite schools aren’t necessarily extra rigorous—and there’s reason for that.
“At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no?” Deresiewicz queries. Then he answers his own question: “Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much.”
“There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a ‘nonaggression pact.’ Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.”
6. Students at elite schools are constantly told they “can be anything they want,” but a significant percentage of them choose to become one of just a very few very similar things.
“As of 2010,” Deresiewicz says, “about a third of (Ivy League) graduates went into finance or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science.”
Deresiewicz quotes Ezra Klein who says that Wall Street has figured out that ‘colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic, and no idea what to do next.’”
(I, Jeannie, believe strongly that parents can help their children sidestep this pitfall by helping them to develop career goal very early on. I provide clear, step-by-step instructions on how to do this in chapter 13 of my book.)
7. What gets you into an elite institution these days? Is it brains or work ethic or high levels of gifted creativity? Nope. It’s increasingly one main thing: Daddy’s money, poured out on you over a lifetime.
“The numbers are undeniable,” Deresiewicz writes. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
“The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
“The problem isn’t that there aren’t more qualified lower-income kids from which to choose. Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford to—they need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor base—and it’s not even clear that they’d want to.
“And so it is hardly a coincidence that income inequality is higher than it has been since before the Great Depression, or that social mobility is lower in the United States than in almost every other developed country. Elite colleges are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it.”
In my work as a blogger and author, I help parents at all income levels strategize early on so they’re able to send their kids to college without debt. (Strategizing early on is especially important for families who don’t plan to save for college.) Dishearteningly, Harvard has quietly instituted policy that makes debt-free college harder to achieve for Harvard students and their families.
According to official policy posted here, Harvard is now refusing to accept 12 CLEP credits toward an undergraduate degree as it has in the past. In addition, Harvard is also currently refusing to accept “dual-enrollment courses counted for credit toward a high school diploma, Advanced Placement Exam (AP/IB) results, or any credit earned by examination, even when credited to your degree by the college or university from which you wish to transfer.”
High achieving, strategic high school students who’ve worked hard to slash future college costs by earning college credit in high school would be well-advised to apply to schools that reward that. There are thousands and thousands of excellent private and public colleges nationwide that are happy to grant credit for college level work done in high school. I provide extensive detail about this here.
8. Deresiewicz suggests that parents encourage their kids to stay away from the colleges that attract all the smartest high school kids.
He writes: “U.S. News and World Report supplies the percentage of freshmen at each college who finished in the highest 10 percent of their high school class. Among the top 20 universities, the number is usually above 90 percent. I’d be wary of attending schools like that. Students determine the level of classroom discussion; they shape your values and expectations, for good and ill. It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.”
Wow. Something to think about.
9. Deresiewicz strongly suggests that high school kids should do less and be more.
“Colleges,” he says, “should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.”
To see my article citing Gallup research that indicates that expensive education does not lead to a happier life, click here.
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Who is Jeannie Burlowski?
Jeannie is a full-time academic strategist, podcast host, and sought-after speaker for students ages 12–26, their parents, and the professionals who serve them. Her writing, speaking, and podcasting help parents set their kids up to graduate college debt-free, ready to jump directly into careers they excel at and love. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Huffington Post, USA Today, Parents Magazine, and US News and World Report, and on CBS News.
Who is William Deresiewicz?
Former Yale professor and author William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic. His essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” has been viewed over one million times online. “Solitude and Leadership,” an address he gave at West Point, has been taught across the military and corporate worlds. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @WDeresiewicz.
This article was updated on March 27th, 2023.