Is an Ivy League school right for youGive up Cambridge, Massachusetts, for Appleton, Wisconsin?

That’s just what Montanan Rob Geck did when he turned down the opportunity to attend Harvard. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And, for that matter, Boston University.

Instead, he decided to enroll at Lawrence University in Appleton. As a high school sophomore, Geck had attended a summer school at Lawrence, located in a city of sixty-five thousand residents in northeastern Wisconsin, and had a great time. That memory stayed with him when he revisited the campus a couple of years later and found the college’s staff offering him a great deal of personal attention. But nothing made him change his mind more than a particularly interesting conversation with Lawrence’s medical advisor.

“He told me in my case the next four years should be hard for me but the four years in med school are going to be really hard and you don’t have much of a life during that time,” remembers Geck, who attended a high school with just four hundred students. “He told me you should have a little more fun and become more of a well-rounded person in college and not take all biology or all chemistry or all math—you have to mix it in with some fun courses.”

While the eighteen-year-old student-athlete, who plans to play football and baseball at Lawrence, is pretty competitive, he did not want the pressure he thought would come with a name school. Geck figures Lawrence will not be an easy ride, either, but at least its admissions propaganda did not play up a hellish scenario of all work and no play.

“In the material from some of the high-profile schools, the big emphasis was ‘we’re going to grill you so hard you’re going to cry for Mom, you’re never going to have time to sleep, and you’ll just want to go home,'” he says. “I like a more easy, well-rounded approach right now.”

Status-conscious

Lawrence is just one of many schools around the country that have managed to attract gifted students bound for “name” schools before they changed tracks. Name institutions continue to tempt the nation’s brightest high school students, but many are opting for a more personal and individualized education provided by less rarefied schools.

With more than $20,000 a year in tuition on the line, students and their parents often want a good national reputation as part of the college package, and the Ivy League and other name institutions allegedly offer to confer an exalted status upon students. Yet should schools’ status really matter that much, especially in a time of economic upheaval and the arrival of the information age?

“It’s a status industry, and people are very status conscious,” says Loren Pope, author of Looking Beyond The Ivy League (Penguin). “What they don’t realize is people who are interested in status are fighting the last war, because kids are going into a new world where status won’t make a bit of difference. They’re all going to be working in careers twenty years from now that don’t exist today.”

Whether Pope’s right on that count remains open to debate. A July 1995 cover story in Newsweek on the “overclass” pointed out that an anonymous survey of Harvard’s 1970 class at a recent twenty-fifth reunion showed one-quarter of its graduates had a net worth of more than $1 million. Yet Pope thinks the future may turn out differently since skills and talents will be more important than family or educational pedigree.

Pope contends that a large number of relatively less known schools exist where a student can receive an excellent education as challenging as any the name schools offer. The pleasant confines of the sixty-acre Austin College in Sherman, Texas, receives high praise from Pope, as does the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Though Wooster College is not as selective as the Ivies in admitting students, Pope says it “outperforms all the Ivies in the percentage of people who become scientists and scholars and Ph.D.s.” He found twenty-nine other schools in his research that had a higher percentage of their graduates go on to become scientists and earn Ph.D.s than did the Ivy League schools.

But Pope confesses the name game thrives despite the best efforts of lesser- known colleges and universities. Too often parents and children get sucked into a status game where the name means more than the education.

To get beyond the name, Pope suggests looking at whether an institution promotes competitive or collaborative learning and how closely faculty members work with students. At some colleges as many as 30 percent of papers written by professors for conferences and publication are co-authored by undergraduate students. And even though name universities say that professors teach most classes, Pope sees the opposite: “One of my young friends quit an Ivy in disgust and said, ‘I’m being taught by students—and some who can’t even speak English.'”

Not so for all big or name universities, says Scott R. Vaughn, assistant director of the Honors Program at Michigan State University. At the Big 10 universities, he says, more than 85 percent of all classes are taught by tenured faculty, and gifted students who enter university honors programs have several opportunities to work closely with professors on projects. The Honors Program at MSU boasts 220 faculty members who advise nine hundred students in the four year program, he says, and a new honors’ initiative gives thirty-seven incoming freshmen a chance to work directly with professors and other faculty on research projects.

The Rankings

Students beginning the process of choosing schools usually list five or six they find appealing and then often, along with their parents, check to see how those institutions rank in U.S. News & World Report or Money magazine. Yet an exhaustive investigative report by the Wall Street Journal, published in April 1995, showed many schools commonly lie about their alleged selectivity. Dozens of colleges routinely exclude “low scoring students from their SAT numbers” and often manipulate low acceptance rates to showcase their high standards.

“In their heated efforts to woo students,” wrote WSJ reporter Steve Stecklow, “many colleges manipulate what they report to magazine surveys and guidebooks—not only on test scores but on applications, acceptances, enrollment and graduation rates.”

“U.S. News & World Report does a great disservice to society,” says Pope. “You cannot quantify quality the way they’re trying to do it. And selectivity and quality aren’t necessarily synonymous.”

The admissions office of Atlanta’s Emory University, a school rated the sixteenth best university in the country in one ranking, does not even bother making note of that standing in any of its materials, according to Daniel Walls, director of admissions. Though a few parents and students come in waving copies of U.S. News & World Report’s guide and say “we know you’re number X” in the ratings, Walls tries to tell prospective students that choosing a school involves more than rankings.

His staff, for example, would rather show off the school’s wooded suburban campus, buildings, faculty, and rate of graduate school placements. They would rather speak about Atlanta’s growth as the South’s leading metropolis and the upcoming Olympics—and how both those attributes play a positive role in attracting students. They would rather students determine whether they fit into Emory’s diverse student body and wide range of majors, says Walls, than simply compare how the school rates regionally and nationally.

At Macalester College in St. Paul—like Emory, located in a residential neighborhood of a large metropolitan area—the admissions staff has the same strategy, says Steve Colee, director of admissions. While the college has scored well in rankings, Macalester instead talks about its national and international flavor, number of students who have received grants and fellowships, and collaborative projects with faculty members, says Colee.

Macalester even addresses the issue of “name” schools in an admissions office pamphlet that suggests its educational offerings are every bit as good as Ivy League schools’. “We’re not—and don’t intend to become—an Ivy League imitation. We’re simply an excellent way to get an Ivy-caliber education,” the piece brags, before proceeding to look at the campus and various programs.

Picking Programs

Colee, Walls, and other education and admissions staff prefer that students think less about an institution’s name and more about what they want and how that fits with their institutions. Students, says Colee, first have to figure out whether they want a large school or small and whether distance from home matters. Along with their parents, they must decide how much they want to spend and consider the financial package a particular institution offers.

Then comes the detective work. Pope strongly believes they should always “check out the merchandise” by visiting their top choices. Emory’s Walls adds that students should research the bottom half of their lists as well as they do the top half because they may not get accepted every place they apply.

Generally, students should find out if classes are taught by professors and ask about the student/faculty ratio. They should take a look at the sequence of courses in certain majors in which they have an interest and see whether the structure is rigid or more open and if that style fits with their educational needs.

Even if students believe they know what major they want to pursue, they should still check on how flexible colleges can be in that area. When must they declare a major and how hard is it to change? And if they decide against their initial choice, does the college have a sufficient number of majors they can transfer into later?

Thinking about graduate school, however distant that seems to high school students, may also play a role in deciding against a name school, since many lesser-known schools have better records than name schools of sending undergraduates on to good graduate programs. So, if students plan to go to graduate school, they should look at placement rates of schools they want to attend and see where those graduates ended up. How many students go on to post-graduate study? Where do they generally go? Does the school have any special relationships with post-graduate institutions or medical or law schools?

If work, rather than graduate school, is in the cards, students should ask the placement offices of colleges whether graduates have found jobs in their fields, at what salary range, and what kinds of networking opportunities the college offers graduating seniors. They might also inquire how active alumni are in recruiting graduates or in helping them network to find jobs. While name schools may excel in this area, lesser-known schools can also offer good job opportunities for students.

Finally, students should decide what college atmosphere best suits their personality. What kind of students attend the college? Where do they generally come from? What’s the campus scene like? Straight-laced, hip, apolitical, political, serious-minded or party-hearty? Macalester has a history of community and political involvement, for example, with volunteerism playing a big role for some students. For a student who wants a mix of both the diversity of a big school and the intimacy of a small one, an honors program of the sort at MSU, common at most large universities, might be just the ticket.

As one wise sage once put it, where students attend college may be much less important than what they make of it once they’re there.

Frank Jossi spent three years as program director of an international press institute at Macalester College and has taught twice overseas on Fulbright Scholarships.