How College Betrays Our Best Students

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This post originally appeared at the Praxis blog.

Applying to college is one of the most stressful times of life for elite students. “This is what the last 18 years have come down to,” they think, and are told by peers, counselors, and parents alike. Getting into a top-choice school, usually Stanford, MIT, or an Ivy League university, is the culmination of all their hard work. It’s not necessarily that these schools are what’s best for them, but that they, as the best students in their community, are expected to continue on to these universities.

But what if telling our best students to go to college, and especially one of these colleges, is one of the worst things we can do? What if we are not only making them much worse off, but society as a whole, as a consequence?

This is one of the key social critiques that Peter Thiel levies against college in Zero To One and one that is backed-up by both anecdote and observation. William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep also makes the case that top students are best off avoiding elite universities.

What has gone wrong at the university-level to lead to so many people, several of whom quite notably, decrying its effect on students? To understand this, the ideal and the reality of elite universities must first be understood.

The Ideal

Professors and academics say college is supposed to be a place where students go off after 12 years of K-12 learning and get to engage in the materials for which they truly have a passion. Many students go into it with this academic excitement. They can finally take a class in philosophy, learn about chemical engineering, and delve into subjects they had only read books in passing on in the past.

They can participate in extracurricular activities with like-minded students, starting that club that didn’t have enough interest back in high school from other students. Or they can study abroad, join a band, or really just do whatever makes them happy.

Most of all, college is seen as a place for elite students to launch themselves ahead towards their dreams. More than anything else, it’s a means to an end for the elite student. Admissions officers congratulate newly admitted students every year at Ivy League institutions from Penn to Princeton about how their lives are set now that they’re in the Ivy League. Students see the university as a place to gain a degree that will help them get a job in whatever industry they really see as their dream industry. For some, the skills gained in engineering, mathematics, finance, or programming are a good addition to the degree, but at the end of the day, it’s that the degree is a way of getting the job that that student dreams of having.

The Reality

The reality is quite different. Students may get to take a class or two in a subject they are sincerely interested in, but once required classes are out of the way, the intense competition that many were able to avoid during high school finally kicks in. Now these students are surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of students exactly like them — just as driven, just as hardworking, and just as determined to win. Those who had dreams and aspirations that lie outside of the academic norm are slowly funneled into the careers the universities are best at creating.

Specifically, there are six paths that universities push students towards, according to Andrew Yang. These are finance, management consulting, law, medicine, Teach For America, and graduate school. When you take ultracompetitive students and place them in an environment where they can compete for prestigious spots in these six sectors,  it’s no surprise when they do. Even students who once dreamed of becoming poets or business leaders tell themselves after two years, “I’ll go do consulting for a year or two, and then try something different.” Many rarely do try something different once they’ve been roped in, though.

It’s not like these paths are anything groundbreaking, either. They are, by their mass-produced nature, less-conducive to individual action and the paths that universities are very good at pushing students towards, either because of formal On Campus Recruiting (OCR) (i.e., finance and management consulting), huge talent and recruitment pipelines (i.e., Teach For America), and undergraduate degree requirements and prestige (i.e., professional and graduate school).

So students spend four years in an institution they thought would help them reach their dreams, only to find their dreams gone by the time many graduate. No longer do they want to launch that innovative new product, pursue that crazy idea, write that book of poetry, or launch that nonprofit. Now, they tell themselves, they must be realistic, and be grateful they can get a good paying job at a major firm. College has betrayed these students. These people who once had the potential to churn out world-changing products now suit-up for OCR and for their TFA interviews.

In short, individualists are turned into run-of-the-mill conformists. Their dreams are gone, and now they just hope they get to pursue some hint of them later in life. I saw this first-hand at Penn, a school notorious for its preprofessional track. Deresiewicz saw it in his students, and Thiel in his peers. Yang sees it in his venture work. It’s not an anomaly — it’s part of how the system works.

Peter Thiel, himself a Stanford and Stanford Law graduate, puts it better than I can on page 36 of Zero To One:

Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

What To Do

Fixing this process can come as at least two options. The first requires a total cultural overhaul of our higher education institutions to remove the perverse incentives and return institutions to merely being tools the students can use, not being monoliths that change the students and their desires while they are in them. This is nearly impossible. Cultural problems are multifaceted and really difficult to get a grip on.

The second option is to provide good options for elite students to follow while maintaing control over their own lives.

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