DISCUSSION / The Merits of the Ivy League / Why I Chose a Public University
by Neel Swamy
I applied to the University of Michigan with no intention of actually attending. Indeed, all I needed back in September was a quick perusal of the admissions website to convince myself that Ann Arbor, oasis of nationally-known sandwich delis and the Michigan stadium, would only exist to me as pictures from Google. Besides, my dream school, even after I submitted my Michigan application for the Early Action round, was a private school in Massachusetts.
Now, four months later, as a proud Wolverine, I couldn’t care less about the latter.
The debate over public versus private, as I now see, boils down to more than a price tag or Forbes’s ranking of a particular school. I believe that like Ollivander’s wand shop in the Harry Potter series, a college campus chooses a student just as much as a student chooses it. Upon arriving at Michigan for an Accepted Students Day, I was greeted by a student body that appeared not drained of spirit, but overflowing with it. These victors, unlike the students at other college presentations I attended, were not competitive and blood-thirsty animals of the classroom, but tenaciously brilliant leaders whose minds were as bright as the Michigan block “M.” These students had more than a “stunted sense of purpose.”
Deresiewicz’s article in The New Republic serves as a strong pat-on-the-back for those students and parents who scoff at the hallowed halls of the Ivy League colleges, yet his aggressive approach to classifying the students at these particular schools leaves much to be desired. While I disagree that all students at these schools are “entitled little shits,” especially since I have close friends studying at Cornell, Princeton, Brown, University of Pennsylvania and Yale, Deresiewicz’s argument concerning success—and the students who know nothing but—aligns strongly with his promotion of public universities and, to some degree, resonates with what I believe to be a generally accepted sphere of thought. Students who dream of and later do attend the Ivy League colleges, while far more academically inclined than the average high school student, are quite frankly no more guaranteed success than those students who attend renowned public institutions such as the University of Washington-Seattle, University of California-Berkeley, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Pennsylvania State University, just to name a few. Many public universities are home to top-tier undergraduate and graduate programs, yet their students generally face much less pressure and anxiety than the Ivy pupils, as they are learning in a significantly less hostile environment. Many state universities also have small student-to-faculty ratios, large endowments and extensive alumni networks, making them strong choices for in-state students who wish to receive a quality education without going bankrupt. While the Ivy League is prestigious, it is not for everyone.
Let me be clear, however, when I say that the faults of the Ivy League system—the term “fault” used more lightly by me than by Deresiewicz—are not due to the students who compose it. The students I know attending these schools are among the most creative, passionate, personable and level-headed people I have ever met, and their achievements are certainly well-earned. Instead, the fault lies with the narrow-minded admissions processes. Public colleges, as Deresiewicz points out, embrace more diverse approaches to success, simply because their acceptance procedures reflect this diversity. While both public and private universities are businesses as well as institutions of learning, public schools place significantly more emphasis on a student’s interests in admissions than their own. Ivy League colleges, on the other hand, face significant backlash on a daily basis because of their exorbitant tuition costs and biased admissions standards, often times denying qualified students simply because their talents are “unneeded.” In addition, many public universities are shying away from employing Affirmative Action in their admissions procedures (the state of Michigan has done away with it altogether), thereby increasing the probability of maintaining a diverse student population. While students at public universities are ready to pop the bubble of economic and social privilege, students at the Ivy League remain, to some degree, trapped inside.
Remember that the power of knowledge is derived not from where it is obtained, but how it is used to alter our world for the better. There is nothing wrong or strange with choosing Penn State over the University of Pennsylvania for one’s course of study, just as there is nothing wrong with doing the opposite. But students must be cautious in falling head-over-heels for a university that may not be able to support their academic or personal needs. Stay open-minded and loyal to yourself, and know that while no student is entitled to success, we are entitled to personal happiness. And in the end, that matters far more than where you obtained your degree.