Palm Trees Over Ivy: Stanford's Prestige Rises on Both Coasts

By attracting more top students from the East like Chelsea Clinton, Stanford shows that it is on the rise.

Mark Peters understands Chelsea Clinton. The Boston native could have stayed close to home and gotten a first-rate education at what is arguably the most prestigious university in the nation. He could have gone to Harvard. But as the senior industrial engineering major crouches over his laptop in the Stanford University student union, he is completely confident in his decision. And many believe that he has every reason to be.

Despite Stanford's status as the West's marquee private university, it has often been ranked behind the Ivy's big three: Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Yet as the millennium approaches some see Stanford as the school of the future.

"As an institution, Harvard is the university of the 20th century," says Coit Blacker, former National Security advisor to President Clinton and a Stanford political scientist. "Stanford is the university of the 21st century."

Stanford can point to a rush of applicants that rivals any Ivy League school. Some 16,359 high school seniors applied for fall 1996, with 2,634 admitted. This year nearly half the students accepted maintained a straight A average in high school, and more than two-thirds scored at least 1400 out of a possible 1600 on their SATs. There are more than a handful of other celebrity students - Tiger Woods having recently abandoned stardom on the Stanford golf team for more prosaic rewards. Would-be engineer Peters, for one, is not surprised Chelsea chose to come here, too.

"The fact she came here instead of an Ivy League school is no big deal," pronounces Peters - who admits that his parents were dismayed by his selection. "Most of us made the same choice."

Founded in 1891 - ancient by California standards - Stanford first gained renown for its powerful engineering and science departments, and as the genesis of the electronics firms that began Silicon Valley. Today, Stanford's research labs continue to produce high technology start-ups and twenty-something techno-millionaires.

But its humanities faculties are also ranked among the nation's best - four of the nine Supreme Court justices are Stanford alumni. Its faculty boasts 12 Nobel Laureates, five Pulitzer Prize winners and 15 MacArthur Fellows. And unlike the Ivy League, Stanford is also home to a collegiate athletic powerhouse, winning the Sears Trophy for most NCAA championships the last two years. Stanford swimmers have together won more Olympic medals than most nations.

Of course, all these attributes take a distinctly second place to the main reason kids come here, at least by their own accounts. "I don't think I could survive in the snow on the east coast," says senior biology major Corinne Rocca. "It's an amazing school academically. But I guess it all comes back to the weather."

Spend a few hours on Stanford's beautiful campus, watching the bikers and roller-bladers swoop through the mission revival-style sandstone buildings with their red tile roofs, and it's hard to imagine choosing a sleet-coated walk across Harvard Yard. "There's a definite laid-back feeling I don't think exists at all at the Ivy Leagues," says Rocca.

But all the talk of a mellow lifestyle amongst the palm trees may be a faade. Professor Scott Sagan, who taught at Harvard before coming west, describes it as a difference in the "culture of presentation" at the two elite schools.

"At Harvard, undergrads act as if they are working very hard, staying up all night drinking coffee and discussing political theory in the coffee shops at Harvard Square," the political scientist says. "At Stanford, students talk as if they are jogging in the hills, attending athletic events and walking down by the bay, instead of working. In fact, the quality of working is similar."

Last, but perhaps not least, for those coming from back East, Stanford has another advantage - it's far away from the folks back home. And amongst the students outside the Jamba Juice bar, the consensus was that this may have something to do with Chelsea's decision.

"If I were the President's daughter, I'd want to get as far away from them and be as normal as I could," says Rocca. "To me, it makes perfect sense."

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