'No thanks, Harvard. I found a better fit.'
Is the pull of an Ivy school lessening - or is it just that much harder to get into one?
When she opened the e-mail that would tell whether she had been accepted to Harvard, Lin Gyi was pretty certain (99.9 percent sure) that whatever it said didn't matter. Her mind was made up: She'd found a school that was a better fit.Skip to next paragraph
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Come next fall, Lin will be attending Swarthmore College, a top-tier liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. It wasn't her first choice. As fine as the 1,500-student college is reputed to be, to Lin it didn't quite have the luster of an Ivy League school.
But when she visited the Swarthmore campus not far from her home in Meadowbrook, Pa., she discovered a place where she could "fit right in" - something she has decided matters more than the prestige of a Harvard degree.
College counselors have long extolled the virtue of finding the school that fits, rather than opting for the one with the best-known name. Now, there may finally be early signs that students have been listening.
That's not to say Harvard and other elite universities should begin fretting about a dearth of applicants, or that the U.S. News & World Report college rankings will go unread.
But some educators see mounting evidence that high school seniors are themselves becoming more selective about college - with fewer adopting the "apply everywhere" strategy, and a majority professing to rank a school's "overall fit" above a prestigious reputation.
They are "ever so slightly paying more attention to the quality of the college experience and how it fits with a student's learning style," says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Many who work with these students say they don't see the college "name game" losing its grip. Instead, the ever-intensifying competition may simply be forcing high schoolers to come to realistic terms with the slender odds of being accepted at the nation's most prestigious schools.
One way or the other, though, more say they are hearing tales like that of Christine Lutian.
A high school senior, Christine was considering applying to Middlebury College in rural Vermont until, on a trip to take the school's pulse and get a feel for whether she could "blend in," she encountered a quad full of students who looked to her "like they'd all just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog."
Christine, who is from Clinton, Conn., knew of the school's reputation as a highly regarded liberal arts college, but had hoped for more diversity. Middlebury students struck her as just a bit too "vanilla."
So rather than opting for a school considered one of the "little Ivies," Christine is almost certain she'll attend the University of Connecticut, a solid state school that's larger, nearer to major cities, and packed with a wider variety of people.
No one is suggesting that the top-ranked colleges have lost their lure. Many of the country's most elite schools saw application numbers leap even higher this year.
But educators do say, to some degree at least, students seem now to grasp better that the place they choose will become home, academically and physically, for the next four years.
Pragmatism may also play a part. Realizing that competition at the most coveted schools is fiercer than ever, students and parents have latched on to the idea of fit as a way of affirming their choices, some suggest.
"There's an interesting psychological twist here," says Mr. Massa. "Because the most popular colleges and universities, in the perception of parents and students, are impossible to get in to, they tend to buy into the notion of fit in order to justify the decision they ultimately make."
The percentage of applicants admitted to Harvard has dipped into the single digits - 9 percent of more than 22,000 were accepted this year, an all-time low.
Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, says his students are "adapting" to these discouraging odds.