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In a kind of virtuous circle, the "second tier" schools got better as applications rose and they could become choosier in assembling a class which in turn raised the quality of the whole experience on campus and made the school more attractive to both topflight professors and the next wave of applicants. "Just because you haven't heard of a college doesn't mean it's no good," argues Marilee Jones, the admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an outspoken advocate of the idea that parents need to lighten up. "Just as you've changed and grown since college, colleges are changing and growing."
Once students start Looking Beyond the Ivy League the title of another Pope book they see for themselves the advantages that can come with an open mind. They find a school that lets students work with NASA on deep-space experiments, or maintains a year-round ski cabin or funds a full year of traveling in the developing world. Schools once derided as "safeties" stand taller now, as they make the case that excellence is not always a function of exclusivity. Some kids end up getting into Harvard and then turning it down because of the $30,000 tuition or the lecture-hall class sizes or because in the course of the hunt they conclude that they would fit better elsewhere. And in making their choice, they get to make their own statement about what is important in an education, and even teach their parents some lessons.
Investing in the Future
Given the changes in the economy as well as the academy in the past 20 years, advocates for smaller schools argue that they give students a sharper competitive edge. "What most parents are concerned about is providing the best security for their child," says Gay Pepper, head of college guidance at Greens Farms Academy, a private school in Westport, Conn. "Some see going to a brand-name college as providing that security. We have to shift that thinking. A college that is right for the student is the best form of investment."
There's growing evidence to support that claim. The Quarterly Journal of Economics published a study in 2002 showing that students who were accepted at top schools but for various reasons went to less selective ones were earning just as much 20 years later as their peers from more highly selective colleges. Much of the old-boy networking value has diminished in an increasingly performance-based economy: only seven CEOs from the current top 50 FORTUNE 500 companies were Ivy League undergraduates. In an economy in which people typically change jobs seven or eight times and new fields open up all the time, Pope notes, "connections won't do a whole hell of a lot of good. It's your own specific gravity, not the name of the school, that matters."
For students aspiring to go to graduate school, the more personalized education offered at small schools can often provide the best preparation. Pomona College sent a higher percentage of its students to Harvard Law in 2005 than Brown or Duke. The academic might of these less fabled colleges was never a secret, but it's becoming more appreciated than ever before. "Most of the good, small schools were church related to begin with, and it was bad form to beat your chest and brag," Pope says.
James Sanchez, 21, from the dusty high-desert town of Española, N.M., is a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina and an aspiring neuroscientist. He figured that at a bigger school he would have been lucky to spend his lab time washing beakers for the star scientists. At Davidson, where there are no grad students, Sanchez's senior thesis is an integral part of a larger three-year study of memory and learning in rats that may offer new insights into Alzheimer's. His professor anticipates that the research will be published in a top-shelf neuroscience journal, and says that Sanchez will be listed as a co-author. That's a rare honor for an undergraduate, and Sanchez thinks it has given him a boost in his applications to medical school.
Students see a strategy: choose intimacy and attention now, and reach for the world-class research university for grad school. Ashley Rufus, 19, gave up a coveted spot on Harvard's waiting list in favor of Truman State University in rural Kirksville, Mo.: "It started out as a financial issue," says Rufus, who got a full ride to Truman. She loved Harvard when she visited, but she hated the idea of eight years of debt if she were to go on to medical school. Truman was closer to home, had a student-faculty ratio of 15:1, and its graduates have a "very impressive" rate of acceptance to medical schools. Carla Valenzuela, 18, who graduated in the spring from Martin Luther King Academic Magnet school in Nashville, Tenn., applied to 13 schools and wound up picking her last choice. She turned down Amherst, Wellesley and Dartmouth in favor of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Part of the draw was being near a big city; part was the offer of a Meyerhoff scholarship, a prestigious, four-year grant for talented high school students studying science and related fields. All 52 Meyerhoff scholars from the class of 2005 went on to graduate schools, 45 of them to M.D., Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. combination programs.