Looking beyond the Ivory Tower

Nayma Qayum for Alal O Dulal

In the Dhaka of my teenage years, having a child attend an Ivy League or otherwise elite American institution was almost a rite of passage for upper middle class parents. If one attended Harvard, people assumed that they had made it. Their parents beamed with happiness every time they bragged, while the parents of children attending “smaller schools” remained silently sulking. Wherever in the world is Colgate? Someone once told me of my own alma mater. Couldn’t you have transferred to Harvard or Columbia? And then there was the Bangladeshi gentleman attending a reception sponsored by my public-school doctoral department bragging that his daughter had gotten into a public undergrad institution under the same umbrella as my school, but “you know, I asked her to go to Columbia, because it’s better. It’s Columbia,” he said, while munching on food paid for by my non-elite department.

Many of these parents may not be aware that prestige is not everything. If you want to make money, Harvard may not be the best place to go. A new study found that in order to be a top earner, you need to go elsewhere. My own unheard-of alma mater ranks fourth on this list. You may be wondering how much money I make. I don’t make a lot. I chose to go into academia. But many of my peers and friends do. Exception: to be a guaranteed high earner, try to get into Caltech. That is like winning the jackpot.

Similarly, potential Bangladeshi students choosing comfort over prestige (after all, you don’t want to come back over summer and refuse to get on a flight back to school) may want to look elsewhere. Here is the Princeton Review’s list of schools with the happiest students. The Ivies are nowhere to be seen. Small colleges, such as Vanderbilt, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont McKenna top the list, although a few larger universities such as Clemson and Rice have found their way into the mix. These schools encompass smaller, close-knit and supportive communities that are especially important for international students, who often leave their homes for the first time as they go to college and find themselves in a strange and unfamiliar academic and social environment. And yet, we find that elite universities top the ranks of schools with the most international students. That is not surprising. They have huge endowments which allow them to provide substantial scholarships and financial aid to non-US students. But the foreign students attending these institutions are usually cream of the crop – wealthy, connected, and/or exceptionally brilliant.

Not every child can go to Harvard. This fact has less to do with the student’s intellect than their parents’ financial capacity. Unless you are truly exceptional and/or your stars are perfectly aligned, you need a lot of money to go to the elite ivies. In the United States, college admission statistics reflect large socioeconomic disparities. Of these, elite schools reflect the highest inequalities. This is largely because colleges rely on high-income students for their finances and cannot afford to support low or middle-income students.

But here is the thing. Not everyone’s child needs to go to Harvard (or Columbia, or Yale). Let’s face it. The elitist nature of selective schools is undeniable. Even selective public schools see such lack of diversity, very often due to economic disparities in the quality of high school education. Bottom line, if your child attends a highly selective school, they will probably be socializing with the cream of the crop of elite society – which is fantastic if that is what they want. But not every incoming college student wants to be locked in that tower.

Let’s stop thinking of the Ivy League world as an unattainable dream and find some solace in the fact that elite schools may not be the only – or even best – choice for all students. The Ivies are large, elite, research-based institutions. I went to a small liberal arts college (SLAC, in academic slang and disclaimer: an elite one). I found some of my mentors there, but others, I found elsewhere. My math teacher Dr. Gopal changed my view of the world and treated me like I was oh-so-exceptionally smart, even when my other teachers were not so sure. I met him during my high school years at a remote hilltop boarding school. I did not do all that well in college calculus, but I do teach statistics now; so something must have clicked there.  In my liberal arts alma mater, I was once locked into a class with a professor whose perspectives were diametrically opposed to mine. Because I was outnumbered (international student, third culture kid), I suffered in silence. My grade reflect that suffering. I also met two outstanding professors at the very same institution. One worked very closely with me on my senior thesis and led me to discover a new lens to view the world. He brought out my inner philosopher and social scientist. I was a misunderstood intellectual rebel, but he spoke my language. My advisor said to me once, “You are like me. We excel at what we love and are terrible at everything else.” If I had attended a large university, I would have been lost in the masses and he would have never found me.

There is a popular misconception that professors in Ivy League schools are the very best. Yes, they are the most established scholars in the field. However, that does not mean that they are the best teachers. A peek at ratemyprofessors.com, a website where students rate their professors themselves, shows that the best professors do not teach at the Ivies. Professors at the Ivies and other research-based institutions have low teaching loads and (incredibly) high research expectations for tenure. At smaller teaching schools, the tenure process requires professors to demonstrate teaching excellence in teaching above all other requirements. Smaller classes allow students to connect with their professors on a one-to-one basis. The environment and culture at smaller liberal arts colleges allow professors to devote time and attention to pedagogical methods and bringing out the best in their students. This is not to say that professors at elite (and research) institutions are not dedicated teachers. However, research excellence takes precedence over teaching excellence at many of these schools. They may be exceptional scholars, and thus mentors for graduate students, but not always the best fit for all undergraduates. Some liberal arts schools are elite institutions, but many are affordable public schools. I currently teach at one of them.

The kind of college you attend determines how you learn and what you learn. And to a large degree, what you gain from your college experience is a direct outcome of a match between your personality and learning style on the one hand, and college culture on the other. A small and close-knit academic community allows professors to bring out the very best in their students, whereas in larger schools, the responsibility often falls on the student alone. Many smaller schools also embrace a liberal arts curriculum, which I wholeheartedly believe in. The best professors that I have met teach students how to think, not what to think. They ask students to question the foundations of their thinking, to sometimes reject those foundations, and at other times, reinforce them. Their students are excited about learning and engage in spirited intellectual debates, both inside and outside of class. Traditionally, such intellectual adventures were the privilege of the elite. However, one writer eloquently explained why he taught Plato to plumbers – we all need to strive to be a society of free people and be more than subservient managers. I aspire for my students to experience the freedom found in the realm of ideas. Very often, they find something that ignites a thought, but have no room to let that thought grow. It is up to professors to help them create that space. “The fire will always be sparked” The author wrote, “Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?”

I am sure you are wondering why one should choose ideas over prestige. After all, don’t the Harvard and Princeton graduates come with the prestige that every recruiting organization desires? Perhaps. However, even assuming that elite-school graduates find jobs far more easily than others (and this is not always the case), their degrees are not sufficient to retain those jobs. We live in an era of innovation and ideas, where being a good employee is not enough to maintain a steady job. The best get ahead and the second-best often don’t make it. The Millennials experience different challenges than their parents did. It takes them longer to find professional and financial security, and exceptional skills and talents to make their mark on the world. In this game, knowing your stuff is not good enough. You have to bring new ideas to the table.

Small teaching schools also help students develop a very different set of skills and values than those developed by students attending large, elite, research-based institutions. The world that we live in faces different threats than it did a generation ago – inequality, environmental calamities, and conflict, for instance. It needs students who are equipped to tackle those challenges head on. Arming oneself for the rat’s race is so very nineties. Today, we need more students with non-material values that drive them towards community service, public responsibility, research, and humanitarian work. The academic culture at elite institutions encourages students to sharpen their competitive edge. After all, they are the very best competing with each other to come out on top. While schools across the spectrum offer opportunities for community engagement and this distinction is by no means absolute, my observation has been that a larger number of students in public and liberal arts institutions pursue careers beyond the private sector. Of course, this distinction is not absolute and many liberal arts institutions are also elite schools. However, the close-knit communities and collaborative academic culture in liberal arts institutions leads students to community engagement and activism in ways that are not as easy in schools with a competitive academic culture.

The purpose of this piece is not to discredit the Ivies or the private sector – the world needs those – but to discuss possible alternate paths. During the annual department dinner at the public liberal arts where I now teach, I looked around in amazement at the graduating seniors. About a third planned to attend law school whereas another third had plans for humanitarian or NGO-related work. The last third was undecided and that group included some of the department’s truly exceptional students. They realized the stark difference between the two paths and confided that they did not want to be forty and realize that they were in the wrong career. They would rather take a year off now to figure out what to do with their life. One future lawyer expressed his guilty reluctance; “I sold out, I know” he said. I told him not to worry, “We need change-makers on the inside as well the outside.”

Bangladeshi parents, don’t be apprehensive about sending your children to non-Ivies. The prestige that comes with attending an Ivy alone lasts for a few years. Consider sending them to teaching schools where professors are expected to think more about pedagogy than research. Send them to public schools so that they can learn about diversity and inequality. Send them to a small liberal arts school so that they can learn how to think instead of what to think. I will not deny that I have my own biases. I don’t want to teach the privileged. I want to teach those who are just as capable but do not have access to the ivory tower. I want to teach students who are lagging because they could not attend privileged high schools. Teaching is kind of like building an army – an army of thinkers, explorers, and change makers. And perhaps the best way to think about college is to identify a school that will arm your child with the best ammunition so that victory can take them closer to a life that they desire for themselves – and in the process, also figure out what that life looks like.

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