DISCUSSION / The Merits of the Ivy League / Why Generalizations are Damaging


by Keenan Smith

I would like to clarify a few things about myself before I begin. I am an incoming freshman at Columbia University, a member of the Ivy League. I am from Flint, Michigan, a town that receives more than enough bad press about its dangers and economic downturn. Lastly, my family is situated firmly on the poverty line. I recognize that Mr. Deresiewicz noted that there were exceptions to his broad statements about the type of students who attend elite private universities, but I feel that the exceptions are too numerous for such generalizations to stand at all.

Taking a look at one of the elite institutions to which Mr. Deresiewicz refers, Columbia University, can dispel one of his points. One issue he brought up is the lack of socioeconomic diversity. Even though the percentage would be much higher at schools on the lower-tiers, 17% of Columbia’s class of 2017 received the Pell Grant. While not exactly a staggering figure, that amounts to about 1 in 5 students being in need of economic assistance. Aside from the statistics, my personal experience with Columbia has not displayed anything less than an extremely egalitarian situation amongst my peers. Many students do come from wealthy families, but all of the friends I have made are in economic standings that are nearly identical to mine. Not only are they generally in the same boat economically, but they also make an effort to take on different perspectives to try to find practical solutions to the problems at hand, just like I do. Columbia does a great job of bringing students together who can find common ground, while instilling a uniquely diverse global perspective at the same time.

One other aspect of Mr. Deresiewicz’s argument that I disagree with is his assumption that the students who attend these elite private institutions are “anxious, timid, and lost.” This is yet another example of a generalization that could not be further from my own personal experience. Every student I know is motivated, productive, and innovative. Each person has a different goal beyond landing their dream job. Yes, there are plenty of students who may be a tad “lost,” but who isn’t at this age? I hardly think that attending a community college makes a person more able to answer the question “what do you want to do with your life?” than someone who attends Yale.

What his argument does is not discourage rising high school students from applying to Ivy League institutions—which they will always do, as we exist in a materialistic capitalist society in which expense indicates value, and until that changes I cannot foresee fewer students applying—but instead attempts to shame those who have managed to achieve this feat.

I do applaud some of Mr. Deresiewicz’s arguments, though. He is absolutely correct in his recommendations for changes to aspects of the current application process. His ideas regarding the altering of Affirmative Action, weighted SAT/ACT scores to factor in socioeconomic status, removal of preference towards legacies and athletes, and establishing admissions committees that are conscious of the fact that many students who come from wealthier families will list activities that poorer students simply could not afford to participate in. He is calling for a more level playing field across our nation’s educational landscape. I wholeheartedly support those kinds of reforms. But just because our current system is definitely tilted in one group’s favor does not mean we should condemn all those who exist within it.

My reason for attending an Ivy League school? Economics. It would have been more expensive for me to attend a public or private university in my home state than to attend a university like the University of Chicago or Columbia University. Though my test scores were great, they were not high enough to warrant a full-ride at a school like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Columbia bridged the gap. Now, I will be attending the university of my dreams, in the city of my dreams, with the bill of my dreams. I encourage my friends in my hometown to apply to the Ivy League for that exact reason. These elite private schools are going out of their way to include students like me, who are driven, intelligent, economically underprivileged. and yet still excited about receiving the best education and opportunities on the market.

“Class of 2017 Profile.” Columbia University. Columbia University, 2014. PDF. 23 Jul 2014.
Vendantam, Shankar. “Elite Colleges Struggle to Recruit Smart, Low-Income Kids.” NPR. NPR, 2013.
Web. 23 Jul 2014.
Deresiewicz, William. “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” New Republic. The New Republic,
2014. Web. 23 Jul 2014.

The Participants

Why Generalizations are Damaging

Kennan Smith
Columbia University

Blame the Root, not the Ivy

Jessica Lu
The University of Chicago

Zombies or Intellectuals?

Gabriela Goitia
The University of Pennsylvania

Engaging from Within, not Dropping Out.
Stephanie Ban
The University of Chicago

Why I Chose a Public University.

Neel Swamy
University of Michigan

Are Ivy Leagues Poisonous

Shirin Chen
Brown University