Ask the grumpies: Any benefit to shooting for an ivy?

Chelsea asks:

I would be curious to read your thoughts about choosing a college. Particularly the perceived benefits of trying to go someplace like an Ivy or MIT or Williams. My DH and I both went to our flagship state school and have well-paying jobs and live happy, quiet lives. Honestly, is there any reason to do anything other than that if we think that’s what’s in store for our kids? Meaning, we hope they have well-paying jobs and happy, quiet lives. I have one child who has special needs and I’m not sure what higher ed will bring for him, one who loves math and science and may be interested in engineering, and a 3-year-old. Obviously, I would not try to stop a kid from going to a prestigious school if said kid really wanted to go, but it seems like so much stress for… I’m not sure what benefit.

Disclaimer:  We gave DC1 a Fiske Guide and said you can go to any college you want to with the following rules:  1.  It has to be in this book.  2.  It has to have at least 4 little academic desks out of 5.  3.  No out of state state schools– if you go out of state it must be private.  (This bummed DC1 out because the UCs are attractive, but we’re not paying private school tuition for a public school when zie can go to the honors college at our flagship at a fraction of the cost.)  This is such an important and personal decision that I don’t think we can make it for DC1.  Plus I feel really guilty for all the people I pushed into Caltech when I was a teenager.  (One of them is now a nurse, another is mid-level management at a large brewery after a stint in the marines, I’m not sure what happened to the other, but she also almost dropped out.)

Most ivies are pretty easy and have lots and lots of grade inflation. The education is about the same as at good Flagship state schools. But you get cachet and connections. In terms of the academic research, going to an ivy over a state school benefits life outcomes for low SES kids but doesn’t have any effect on life outcomes for high SES kids.  (There’s a lot of research on this topic going at it from a lot of different directions.  I think the Carolyn Hoxby/Sarah Turner field experiment has an extensive literature review.)  Ivies also tend to have extensive support networks in place and just more resources more generally.  (They may also cost less if you’re eligible for financial aid!)

Top graduate programs like taking students from ivies, but they also like taking them from top SLACs and top flagship schools.  If you’re in a state with a good flagship, it’s still possible for your kid to get into the #1 program for whatever graduate field they are interested in.  It may not be possible from a regional state school or a less prestigious SLAC.  But it will still be possible to get into a top 10 program and definitely a top 30 program, most likely.  Life is easier when you’re graduating from one of the top schools, but if you work hard and demonstrate awesomeness you can still do very well from a top 30 program if you’re in an in-demand field.  (I cannot make any claims for Humanities where the labor market is much weaker.)  Basically working harder in high school and going to a top ivy can make the rest of education easier if you plan on going that route.  But most people don’t.

I didn’t get into Williams (waitlisted *sob*), but there are benefits to (prestigious) SLACs in terms of the college experience.  It is NICE to have small classes and professors who know you and all the cute little traditions these schools tend to have.  I have school spirit for my undergrad even though our sports sucked and nobody cared about them.  One potential problem is that they sometimes have limited classes and if you want to take a specific course if only one (married) professor (with adult kids) teaches it and goes on leave or has a fist fight at a local restaurant with another professor because he’s sleeping with that assistant professor’s extremely young wife* and you can’t handle taking a class from him, you’re kind of SOL.

I also think that consortiums are really great– if a bunch of small schools get together and allow cross-enrollment, you can get the benefit of a small school but also not have to worry so much about getting the classes you need for your major in the exact semester you need them into your schedule (this is also a problem at large state schools– classes you need can fill up and make it difficult to get required classes when you need them).

We are not honing our kid to get into an ivy. If we were, we wouldn’t have skipped. Zie would have taken high school classes during middle school (meaning we’d have to drive every day to drop hir off). We would have forced hir to do competitions. And I’d probably be forcing hir to coauthor papers with me or DH would be pushing DC1 to get programming things out into the world. Not having those special things doesn’t mean a person can’t get into an ivy, but having them makes it more likely.

A small part of me wishes I’d gone someplace like MIT or Caltech as a college student (though not really Caltech because it’s so brutal). In high school and college I was searching for like-minded peers who just loved learning for learnings sake. These two engineering schools have lots of them as undergrads. Students at my fancy SLAC were way more interested in the OJ Simpson trial than in thinking or tinkering. (Not all of them– I did have my people in the math major, but not the econ major.) Any large enough school is going to have like-minded people, but you have to find them– you won’t necessarily get placed with them, and if you’re like DH or me and tend to hang out with people who are geographically close you may not connect with them.  It’s easier if you go to a school that draws more people who share your interests.

Grumpy Nation:  Are there any benefits to choosing an ivy?  Do you have a better answer for Chelsea or any interesting reminiscences?  

*Did I mention that drama may be a problem at small schools?  (I think it’s hilarious that Wikipedia has locked said professor’s wiki page with a note about slander– if no charges were pressed, it couldn’t have happened, right?)

42 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Any benefit to shooting for an ivy?”

  1. wally Says:

    I went to public schools for elementary through high school – very urban, not highly rated but we were all in the college prep program which gave us a very good education. My friends went to the best UCs and some Ivys. I went to a state school in a nearby state – not highly rated like Michigan or Illinois, and in fact it was pretty easy to get in. I took my science classes in the honors college bc I begged my way in (only way to take intro science in a small classroom size). I did my masters there and then did my PhD at another state university – but the urban campus, not the flagship. My education throughout was good. In undergrad, I double majored in both one of the smallest majors and the largest. In the latter, I worked in lab of a faculty member which gave me a more personalized touch and good research experience. Most of my profs at both universities were educated at the top universities – my undergrad mentor was an ivy grad X2. I then did my postdoc at an Ivy and stayed as a faculty (non TT due to the restrictions of my grant). I had no idea it would be so different? The amount of resources I have access to now are pretty incredible – though there are some bizarre holes (like there is no one on campus with whom you can consult about survey research, and there was a whole center dedicated to that at my PhD institution). I also have opportunities I doubt I would ever have had had I done my postdoc at a state school (like being invited to present at the UN). Someone I went to high school with who bullied me even now reaches out to me to ask for advice with things. Pretty sure that is just bc of the university where I am now.

    I don’t notice a difference in the quality of the research in my particular school, but boy howdy is it better funded. I don’t think my colleagues are smarter or better than faculty at my previous institutions, but they often get their NIH grants funded on the first try. At our catered faculty meetings, lunches come with petit fours and macarons and we have had multiple champagne breakfasts to celebrate our NIH rankings. Broadway performers have made videos for us thanking us for our healthcare workers’ and researchers’ work during the pandemic. I’m a bit used to all of this now – but there was massive culture shock for the first couple of years I was here. There is also some entitlement that is a bit challenging. I’m now on the market for a tenure track position and the thought of possibly going back to a state school and losing the caché and resources of an ivy is a bit sad, though I would gain in other ways.

    Sorry – that was very long. I clearly have a lot of feelings about this!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Even the pens are nicer!

      You do keep some of the ivy cachet after you leave but the other resources sure are nice. I’ve found the libraries at big state R1 to be just as good even if they have lower quality tea in the faculty work room (many R3 don’t have tea at all).

      • FF Says:

        On topic: The large Ivy I went to as an undergrad had a lot of resources–for example, everyone I know who wanted to do research was able to get into a lab and lab courses for the advanced major courses used current departmental equipment–there wasn’t separate crappy old equipment for the undergrads. There was a huge variety of courses, even for phys ed (which was required). I thought the education was very good, although not enjoyable–a lot of classes were graded on fairly brutal curves and the worst pre-med stereotypes of competition and sabotage were on display. Students there were very driven. There was only major advising and very little support otherwise, which I know has changed. I would not have recommended it to anyone I liked (although to be fair, there were medical issues with both of my parents during my undergrad that colored my experiences), but a friend’s son is there now and seems very happy. People did recognize the name and know that the school gave a great education.

        Also, if you are not of high SES (and I wasn’t) the Ivies generally give the most financial aid, especially nowadays. It would have cost more for me to attend a SUNY, although staying home and commuting to a CUNY would have been cheaper.

        After dropping out of a graduate program at a prestigious non-Ivy, I went to a more prestigious Ivy for my PhD after working for a couple of years. It was frankly a different world on the undergrad level–overall it seemed to have much higher SES students on the undergrad level–fancier cars, students going on fancy trips. The second name is the one that opens doors. I got my PhD more than twenty years ago, and interviews or clients will note that they see I went to that school. In my small PhD program (my class of 6 was considered large at the time), I was the only student who came from an Ivy undergrad. Two of my classmates were from public universities in California, one from a public university in Kentucky, one was from Carnegie-Mellon, one was from the University of Helsinki. My feeling was that they really looked at each applicant individually, but it has since been folded into a larger umbrella program.

        Maybe MIT or Caltech would have a lower proportion of people who were interested in OJ, but it was certainly a topic of discussion in my grad department, although I wouldn’t say that anyone was obsessed. What I would say is that people had interests in politics, books, performing arts, etc., and there was much less interest in these things (and much more interest in sports) in most of the non-Ivies where I trained or worked.

        Off topic:
        Cachet (2 syllables; ca-shay) = a quality or feature that confers distinction or prestige
        Cache (1 syllable, cash) = hiding or storage place or something stored there

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ah I thought cache looked funny and I did know cache meant cache and was pronounced cache but couldn’t remember the t for cachet– I was like maybe there’s supposed to be an accent. But of course it is French. I will fix it.

        I can tell you for certain that the students at Caltech were not paying attention to the OJ Simpson trial and did have interesting nerdy/intellectual pursuits. At least the ones in Blacker and Avery and a couple of the other houses that I had friends at (is Dabney one? I vaguely remember oversexed students in a hot tub at Dabney? But it’s been decades).

        We noticed the same thing re: grad vs. undergrad Ivy, and the Ivy grad opening doors.

    • Matthew D Healy Says:

      Speaking of the OJ trial, I was a postdoc in Genetics at Yale when that was going on. I was then and remain personally convinced OJ did it, but had I been on the Jury I would have had to vote for acquittal due to how badly the LAPD bungled handling DNA samples and how badly the prosecution explained the technology. I found their explanations confusing even with far more background in the subject than most jurors.

      I also had the thought, if this was how the LAPD handled DNA samples in such a high profile case, how many other blunders had they made in cases where the Public Defender wouldn’t have had any resources to challenge the police?

      Of course somebody like me would probably never have made it onto that jury. Imagine somebody with my job, but at UCLA, being questioned by the lawyers: “So, Dr. Healy, I see you maintain databases for the Genetics Department…”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        You’re giving me flashbacks here. Not saying that those murders were unimportant, but it did not need to consume so much of my social time given there was nothing any of us could do about any of it. I guess I was disappointed with how much of undergrad was consumed with gossip (both personal and tabloid) and how little outside of class was intellectual (or the nerd equivalent). Undergrads at Caltech and MIT were always doing interesting things outside of class and talking about ideas, not just who liked who.

  2. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    I went to an Ivy. It set me up for life in a way that my state school wouldn’t have. I got really awesome internships, got to study abroad (for free), had access to a dazzling array of arts/cultural opportunities that I’d probably have to pay thousands to access now (speakers, concerts, etc.). My first job basically only recruited from my alma mater and, when I switched to a different competitive-ish part of my industry, there’s no doubt in my mind that having the Ivy brand on my resume made it a lot easier for me to get interviews even without prior experience.

    I think you can live a good, happy life going anywhere to college (or not going to college if that’s not your path), but, for better or worse, the Ivy brand opens doors that can make life much, much easier.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      A lot of R1 have dazzling arrays of arts/cultural opportunities too! And internships and study abroad etc. Recruiters also recruit at top flagship R1.

      Not to say an Ivy doesn’t make these things easier, it does. But R1 do have a lot of advantages.

  3. Katherine Says:

    I went to an ivy and it DEFINITELY launched my academic career in a way that I just don’t think would have happened if I had gone somewhere less prestigious. It is much easier to get into a “good” grad program from those schools (ivies and ivy-level SLACs like Williams) than from even a very good public flagship or a lower-tier SLAC. I wasn’t low SES, but as a first generation college student from family that rocketed off the farm and into the white-collar class in the past two generations, I think I got many of the benefits that low-SES students in the studies you cited get.

    That said, I didn’t get anywhere near as much academic advising and personal support as we provide at the small, mid-tier SLAC where I now work. I think it really depends on the type of student – if they are driven enough to get into an ivy, I think the benefits of going there are worth it. If you have to force it, they might do better at a more friendly, supportive school, but might not be headed towards an academic career anyway. This conversation seems fairly focused on academic career opportunities.

  4. gwinne Says:

    I have told LG the same thing about out of state public schools. They are also applying anyway. If that’s REALLY where they want to go for some reason, it will be on them to contribute to the cost, whereas I’m willing to foot the bill for in state or strategic private.

    FWIW, I didn’t go to the flagship in my state. I got into an honors program with a full scholarship elsewhere and honored my parents’ request (they had a brochure that said something like “how to get an ivy league experience at a state university”). Ended up in a top 15 grad program in my field anyway…

    On some level I’m really convinced college is what you make of it, wherever you land.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If I hadn’t gone to a top SLAC/Ivy/flagship and decided to go into econ (which I might not have), I probably would have ended up at Michigan or Wisconsin. Which are excellent programs (top 10). The thing about Ivies is that once you have some ivy branding, people will take you based on your promise, but you have to have actually achieved something if you go elsewhere.

  5. Steph Says:

    I went to a SLAC that’s reasonably high ranked – it’s not super well known nationwide but it’s moderately well-known regionally. When I was applying it seemed like people only knew about it if they were alums or knew alums. But I was happy with that choice and the education I got there.

    I did not apply to any Ivies for undergrad. They felt like too much pressure and money (though I’m not sure they were actually that much more expensive than my alma mater). I decided that I would do an Ivy for grad school…obviously not something one can guarantee, but it worked out in the end anyway. And then my postdoc was at a different Ivy-affiliated research center.

    In my field, the biggest downsides to choosing a SLAC over a state school or an Ivy are that a) subject GRE scores tend to be lower for SLAC students compared to Ivy or big R01 programs and b) there’s a good chance that the admissions committee won’t recognize your letter writers’ names, and so won’t trust your letters as much (I hate this part of academia). There are also just fewer class options in general, and none of those upper level undergrad/intro grad overlap classes that students at bigger schools get access to.

    Conversely at a SLAC you’re much more likely to get one-on-one attention from a professor and, depending on the school, more research opportunities. When I was at the Ivy-affiliated research center, I got a grant to hire undergrad researchers and the resounding response from admins and other scientists was “but why?”. Undergrads did sometimes get research positions there, often with a cookie-cutter paper waiting for them to publish their data (I hate this trend so much), but the overall research experience didn’t seem to be any better than my SLAC experiences.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I also hate that part of academia.

      Going to a SLAC that is part of a consortium (especially if at least one of the schools has a graduate program) can help with the lack of classes problem, though it may involve travel.

  6. Sarah S. Says:

    I went to Williams (but got waitlisted by Swarthmore, my top choice…) and now am a professor at a selective but not top 10 SLAC, so I have a decent insight into those differences. I did my PhD at a flagship R1 and postdoc at an Ivy, so less knowledge of the undergrad experience there, but some insight at least into STEM education.

    Williams just has soooo much money, and it’s all being applied to the undergraduate experience. My upper level classes were tiny, many classes with 9 and none above 15, compared to 12-50 at my current institution. Visiting professors at Williams tended to be tenured professors on sabbatical from other institutions teaching their favorite class. Visiting professors at my current school are more common and tend to be right out of grad school. They are enthusiastic and the jobs are highly selective, but they are also unpolished and learning to teach while looking for a permanent position. It is also quite hard to get into some classes at my current institution because the staffing is so tight. You will absolutely get the classes you need to graduate on time (need to keep that 4 year graduation rate high!) but if you want to take intro econ or psych as a senior just to try them out you’re unlikely to get in (I hate this, seems to defeat the purpose of a liberal arts education). I think my current school is great, and wouldn’t hesitate to send my kids here, but if it’s a choice between spending $70,000/year at my current school or at a top SLAC, the richer schools really do have more resources and use them in some meaningful ways.

    I actually have quite a bit of hesitation should my kids be competitive for Ivys (they’re 4 and 7, so who knows?). The sense I got as a postdoc was that the professors did not care at all about undergraduate education. They barely even taught graduate classes. At least in the sciences they are supposed to get grants and do research and use the grants to buy out their teaching so they can get more grants and do more research. There was a set of full time instructors to get students taught and those jobs are quite competitive so the calculus instruction at this Ivy was supposed to be truly outstanding, but I also saw some upper level lab classes really falling through the cracks and being taught by frantic graduate students. I think the name and reputation would be great but I would have some concerns about the education, as well as the hyper competitive student body.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sense of the ivies is that they are similar to R1 in terms of teaching. (My advisor was told by her faculty member that “teaching is the residual,” but that’s not how all professors felt about undergrad classes.) But yes, the intro classes tend to be taught by grad students just like at R1s.

      One thing at my DH’s ivy grad school– he had a TERRIBLE prof who was only allowed to teach grad classes because he was so bad that he was barred from teaching undergrad classes (grad students also tried to get him barred, but with no success). I don’t know that a state school would bar someone from undergrads unless they were a sexual predator.

      I really don’t get the sense that places like Harvard and Stanford are that competitive (as opposed to collaborative) once you get there. I feel like there are schools that do have that reputation, but it’s not really an ivy/R1 thing, rather a specific school thing or even a specific major thing. (My sister was super careful in terms of which engineering schools she applied to for that reason, and our own flagship’s program had a really bad reputation in terms of being cutthroat, even though the school in general isn’t.)

  7. SP Says:

    I have a weird bias against Ivys and especially SLACs as being “for rich people”. But, I realize that they can have a huge boost for everyone, especially the not rich. Maybe it is a chip on my shoulder because I feel I never got any career advantages due to my educational credentials, alumni networks, etc. etc. Neither my spouse nor I had great guidance when applying for colleges, so we did what the people around us did, looked at colleges people around us looked at. It worked out fine in the end (spouse did have quite a bit of trouble getting into most top PhD programs, but made it to something in the top 5 in the end), but we surely could have both gotten into somewhere “better” and taken different paths. But to Chealsea’s question, probably not a meaningful difference in overall quality of life and happiness in the end, especially for me who did not pursue academia.

    I will have to think through my bias before I ever enter into any real conversations on how to choose a college. Your approach seems good and fair, and not overly stressful for the family or DCs.

  8. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I went to an ivy for grad school and *they* paid *me* for it; it is a top-three program in my field. (I went to a well-known SLAC for undergrad.)

  9. omdg Says:

    I went to U Chicago, and 100% I wouldn’t be where I am now without it. Going there for undergrad enabled me to get a job with some faculty doing research when I decided later on I wanted to go to grad school. Would it have been possible otherwise? Perhaps, but I likely would have had to get a masters degree first. Without that job I never would have gotten to do MD PhD at Trump-Ivy. Could I have done an expensive post-bac someplace and then not done MD PhD and ended up also someplace good? Maybe, but it would have been even more of a hustle than it already was. I have my dream job now, so no complaints here. Had I gone to UConn instead? Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so turned off by the premeds in my gen chem class freshman year and gone straight through college –> med school and been much more successful. Who knows!

    Also U Chicago was nerd heaven and I was surrounded by so SO many smart people who liked to talk about interesting things.

  10. Jessica Says:

    I agree that there is a benefit for getting into good grad schools if you’re coming from an ivy or other top school. One with strong undergrad research opportunities if the student plans to get a PhD.

    If the student is hoping to go into the work force after graduating, I think the most important thing is going to a school that will get them the best work experience – ideally full semester / 6-month co-op opportunities, not just summer internships (it is so much easier to get a co-op during the semester than a summer internship, both because of school connections and because there’s way less competition). The work experience is not only very helpful for full time job applications, but it’s also an “in” to top companies – obviously they would rather hire someone who’s already done a great job working for them than roll the dice on a new person. I know some top employers that basically only hire past co-ops as entry level employees.

  11. Debbie M Says:

    I have some anecdotal comments on this. I went to a near-ivy (a good private school full of Harvard rejects; also only 30 years old at the time with no actual ivy).

    My first thought is that attending an ivy would have had no benefit for me–I didn’t hang with people in my major or make any connections at all. I stayed friends with some of my classmates, but they stayed on the east coast and I moved back to Texas. I deliberately picked a school where only 10% of the students were from within state, but it was a small state. Another 25% were from New York. I had only one friend outside the northeast; she was from Atlanta.

    On the other hand, I’d never lived in the northeast, so it was kind of like a mini-study abroad for me, which was awesome. (Never order a scrod frappe.) (Not that this is actually possible.)

    I’d been afraid to go to my state’s flagship university because I was afraid it would be full of Texas hicks, but I ended up there for grad school and later realized I would have been very happy with a degree in Honors Liberal Arts at a much, much lower cost.

    It’s fun to compare your answers about general reality to my personal reality. “In terms of the academic research, going to an ivy over a state school benefits life outcomes for low SES kids but doesn’t have any effect on life outcomes for high SES kids.” I was a lowish SES kid, but probably too stubborn to get life benefits. I just wanted to be a teacher, which I failed to achieve, and ended up a clerical worker (though at a university).

    “It is NICE to have small classes and professors who know you and all the cute little traditions these schools tend to have.” I ended up picking the most popular major, like 25% of my classmates, so my classes weren’t particularly small. Though admittedly, my freshman general classes mostly were. Nevertheless, professors did not know me because I was silent and not amazing compared to my classmates like I was in public school. I had stupid work/study jobs instead of working in labs or internships.

    “In high school and college I was searching for like-minded peers who just loved learning for learning’s sake.” Me too; I attempted this by choosing a school with no football team and no sororities or fraternities. I ended up in a school that was ranked in some journal as 5/5 for academics and 1/5 for social life. Everyone was complaining because clearly we deserved 2/5! But seriously, I needed all ten of my friends to be able to find even one to do fun stuff with, and sometimes still just had to wander out on my own or go when my best friend from high school visited. My classmates were always too busy studying. Admittedly, most were pre-med or pre-law. Because their parents insisted (yikes!).

    For financial reasons I ended up at a non-flagship state university my junior year and it was SOOO easy. I had a 4.0 average one semester. The next semester I had a 100 average in one class, and in a huge intro class with multiple-choice tests, the professor told me I should switch majors to his major. I felt it was too late, so he said he’d write me a letter of recommendation if I wanted to go to grad school in his major, and I ended up taking him up on that. (This was in the early 1980s; this school might not be so easy anymore. I get the feeling that there are are a similar number of colleges available now with a similar student body size but a way higher student population to choose from.)

    [When I applied to grad school, with my 3.3 GPA and minimal extracurriculars (Course Evaluation Committee, Girl Scout Leader Trainer), my first two choices rejected me (of course), but my state’s flagship accepted me on the basis of my nice GRE and gave me a fellowship for the first year and a TAship the second.]

    And one more viewpoint: My grandmother couldn’t understand why I insisted on going to such an expensive school. She said I should not count on her to help with the costs. It had never occurred to us to ask for her help, so that was fine. But she did have a point that not only was it expensive, but all my classmates were rich, which could have led to rough peer pressure had they wanted to do anything other than study all the time. (She would probably have liked me to go to University of Chicago, though; I’d have been handy for her to set up with some nice Jewish boys.)

  12. Alice Says:

    Please don’t push your kids in either direction. Don’t push for an ivy if that’s not who they are, but don’t stunt them in the interest of keeping them out of one, either. Take your cues from your kids as they grow up.

    My parents deliberately undervalued my academic side for years because they thought there was something wrong with it. There are opportunities they turned down that I didn’t even know existed. I did not go to an ivy and I do think my life is fine. But I also look at what my parents did as being colossally shortsighted. Let your kids set the direction with who they are as people. If an ivy makes sense for them down the line, you’re going to get signals. If it doesn’t make sense for them, you’ll get signals for what does make sense.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m not sure that one does get signals or one necessarily knows how to evaluate them. There are plenty of teens who end up mismatched simply because neither they nor their parents have enough information. (That’s, in fact, what the Hoxby/Turner field experiments are about– reducing mismatch among high achieving low SES kids and top schools.)

  13. teresa Says:

    I went to a prestigious SLAC, then an MD-PhD program at a non-flagship state school (but ended up with only the MD), and later got an MS at an R1. Career-wise, I don’t think my grades would have gotten me into any MD program without both the branding of the school and the letters and extracurriculars I only had because I was at a small school. Classmates who didn’t go to grad school seemed get connected to desirable jobs/internships. Academically, my experience was that my undergrad classes were way more rigorous than the classes I TA’d as a grad student and expectations about writing quality and use of literature were completely different, but except maybe in academia I don’t know how important that really is. I mean, one of my undergrads was later a resident in an adjacent specialty at the same place/time I was a resident- we had the same degree, same credentials, passed the same tests, and took care of the same patients, so did it make a difference that I had to write more challenging undergrad papers? Some of my grad classes at both institutions repeated material I’d already learned as an undergrad, so sure they were maybe easier for me, but everyone learned the material in the end, so again, does it matter?

    Experience-wise though I think there’s a lot to be said for the well-resourced SLAC. I think I had exactly 2 classes that were more than 35ish people (general and organic chem). Most of my upper division classes were more like 5-15 people. As introverted as I am, there’s no way I would have approached faculty in huge lecture classes and gotten research or teaching opportunities, or made enough of a connection to get letters written. For the same reason, I think I would have had a very hard time making friends at a state flagship school where I wasn’t carefully put in proximity to similar-minded people. Most of my friends who went to larger schools made their friends in sororities, which for me- no way. Also, I am not especially athletic but was able to play a varsity sport for 4 years because D3, and met most of my college friends that way.

    On the other hand, my husband’s very extroverted niece is at an Ivy now, and does all the things (club sports, music, research) and excels and loves it. So probably very personality dependent. (When she was deciding where to apply I pushed my alma mater, my BIL pushed his [Cal], and my husband was in favor of where he went to med school. She applied to none of those but seems to have made the right decision for her).

    So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe don’t deliberately prime your kid for an Ivy/equivalent, but don’t rule out things besides a state flagship either.

  14. Lisa Says:

    I have strong feelings about what worked well for me, but it’s harder to know what to recommend for my kids. I got a full-ride scholarship to the local state flagship and graduated in 3 years. I didn’t get much of a personalized experience, and most of the professors in my major didn’t know me or were surprised when I asked for letters to get into grad school. This was probably due to a combination of the fact that I was quiet in class and didn’t attend office hours (just did my work and got on with my life) and they were apathetic despite the fact that I was on the student advisory committee and worked in the undergrad lab stockrooms and TA’d as an undergrad. Retrospectively, I can see the advantages of a good SLAC with small classes and personalized advising. I also retrospectively wish I had done a study abroad at some point. But in my 3 years there, I also met and married DH, so if I’d done these other things, my life would look different now. Our state flagship was top 25 in my major, though, and I got a good education for free.

    I went to MIT for graduate school, which was 195% worth it. As others have noted, those top school connections can mean everything. I know people all around the world thanks to our connections from grad school and wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world. However, I was an RA in an undergrad dorm while at MIT and the undergraduates had a pretty mixed experience. Some of them loved it, but others floundered for various reasons. It was a pretty rough environment for them, largely because they’d all been #1 in their high schools and many of them struggled because they were no longer the best at everything. I think it was a much better place for grad school than UG. Caltech was even worse, especially for women – I’ve heard too many stories about creepy stalking (because men far outnumbered women, maybe it’s different now?) even from graduate, postdoc and faculty women.

    As a faculty member, I’ve worked at both a large private R1 and a flagship state R1. The private school did not have the interactions an SLAC would have, but did try hard to make everyone feel a part of the school “family”. The state school “wanted” to make a good experience for undergrads, but I don’t think it really did. At an R1, research is what really matters and the undergrads can sometimes take advantage of that and do great research projects or can get lost and ignored.

    As my kids get closer to college age, I’m really not sure what to encourage. If they are set on going to grad school, they can get a good education for very little $ at our state school. If not, it probably matters more where they go for undergrad (depending on what they want to do when they grow up). I think that taking advantage of the “special opportunities” available wherever they go is probably more important (study abroad, honors college, etc.).

      • Lisa Says:

        You mean at MIT? We were in the easternmost UG dorm at the time. Back then, MIT had a unique system of assigning students to dorms – they spent the first week before classes “rushing” a dorm and then a hall. So they had to move twice in that first week unless they lucked out and were temporarily stationed in the dorm/hall where they ended up living. I’m sure it was insanely stressful, but the end result was that each hall had its own personality and our group was really mellow.

        Or if you’re talking about large private R1, West campus. Reputation for taking rich international students but also offered very generous financial packages for local kids. Marching band used to practice outside my office every Friday (I found this more enjoyable than annoying).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Do they not still do that? Most of the MIT undergrads I knew were EC (4e and 3e which were very different!) but some were Random and a few more normal sporty people were in West Campus dorms.

      • Lisa Says:

        No, they stopped doing it several years ago. I think they try to retain some of the distinct personalities, but the process is not the same. I was actually in the WESTERNmost UG dorm at the time, out by the athletic fields. Had a good friend from grad school who was a tutor (RA) at Random house – EC and Random both had pretty strong phenotypes!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Ah yes, where all the normal kids lived! (Like Avery at Caltech…IIRC)

      • Lisa Says:

        Nah – “normal” is all relative. The mix of personalities and hobbies is what makes those schools special!

  15. Bardiac Says:

    As a high school student, it never occured to me that people actually went to private schools, if that makes sense. No one I knew had gone to a private school (that I knew of). When I went to grad school interviews and met other students, and those students were all from Ivies, they were pretty much the first people I met who’d gone to an Ivy (except for a few profs at my regional state school).

    Having gotten into a quite fine state R1 for grad school from a regional state school, I saw a lot of advantages flow to students who’d gone to Ivies and SLACs, maybe because the profs all came from that sort of background? They got the best opportunities and the best jobs, and the few of us from state schools of us were mostly canon fodder for teaching, and, if we were lucky enough to get jobs, pretty much ended up at second or third tier sorts of schools. (I can think of one exception.)

    Within academics, there’s a massive cachet to having Ivy credentials. It doesn’t mean you’ll get a top notch job, but you probably won’t get one without it.


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