The Dark Side of America's Elite Universities

The unspoken reality behind elite colleges in the U.S. that only a few knows...

The Dark Side of America's Elite Universities

Harvard... the miracle name that everyone looks up to. Walking on its campus (in a tour, of course), any person who rubs your elbows could be the next 'college dropout' like Bill Gates or Matt Damon. I wonder, If there is a dark side to this place, what could it possibly be?


  • Getting into the school you don't belong

It's not the first time we heard of college admissions scandals. Top-tier schools like USC (University of Southern California), Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown have all been involved in bribes behind closed doors. Coaches, exam administrators, and admission consultants are convicted guilty and sentenced to jail or home confinement for pocketing millions of dollars and opening 'sideways shortcuts' for their clients – rigged GPA, cheated SAT scores, and fake athletic credentials (rowing🚣 , tennis🎾 , Waterpolo🤽‍♂️ ).

Because of those criminal conspiracies, innocent, hardworking students are shut out from the entrance. Winning an international award, having straight As on your transcript, and being your high school valedictorian doesn't get you into an Ivy. What does? Born in a wealthy family that's willing to defraud your way in.

  • Lies and Greed

"Why would those parents ever do this?"

Parental vanity is the primary motivation. Going to college itself is a privilege. In 2021, the population percentage from age 25 with a bachelor's degree was 37.9%. Getting their kids into well-regarded universities matters for how people see you – being more 'elite' than others. The rarefied air beyond the cloud satisfies their ego.

Another treasure that appeals to those parents is status elevation. Within our deep human instinct, it's somehow natural to compare how well off we are relative to others. Not only universities, parents are also competing on prestige. Their incentive of letting their sons/daughters get into global brand names schools isn't simply for their education. Whereas it was so they could tell their friends that 'my kid is in ()!'

For those parents, getting their kids into an elite school is no different than rich superficial buying a Lambo – to gain validation from others. But what they have not yet realized is that their selfish incentive might as well lead to endless headaches and loaded mental burdens for their kids...

Why are Ivy League schools so hard to get into?

  • Scarcity
College Enrollment Statistics

While people's standard of living has been rising, going to college has become more of a way of life. Over the past 50 years, the number of students attending universities in the U.S 🇺🇸 has increased almost threefold.

Historically, elite colleges used to expand with the rise in demand. However, as a larger share of the world's population has signed up, expansions had essentially frozen (in terms of the number of people in every year's class). For the Class of 2026, Harvard admitted 1954 freshmen out of its total 61,200 applicants with a historic record-low acceptance rate: 3.19%.

An explanation for the slump in admission rates is the internet 🖥. For our parents' generation, because the university web pages sucked, people couldn't really apply online, nor was it favorable. They needed to send out requests to colleges through mail showing their interest, and colleges would mail them back with stamped paper forms 📄 to fill out.

Back then, even the most selective schools weren't that selective. In the 1970s, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT's admission rates were around 20%. If anyone wanted to get into Harvard, they'd move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, rent an apartment, find a job, take the entrance exam (perhaps with a face-to-face interview), and then most likely, they'll get in! The situation was that you had to be committed to getting into an elite school. But now, you can toss your application essays for multiple colleges and wish to get lucky 🎲...

  • The Stagnancy in Supply

Everybody who knows some basics of Economics would know that in order to absorb a greater demand, you should increase the supply. But elite universities have not followed up on this model.

The students now are more qualified than before when our parents went to college – the average SAT scores are higher, intelligence test scores (IQ) are rising, and more people are graduating with Ph.Ds. If colleges were really for learning, researching, and serving the common good.

With all the access to tremendous resources, why wouldn't the Ivy League schools take more people?! What's the point of trying to keep the institution cliquish when tens of thousands of equally competent applicants are rejected?
College Endowments – the richest universities

One flaw with the idea of expansion would be to find more qualified faculty to teach those super talented students. Also, there'd be an issue with facilities – how can schools in the city center like Brown build more lecture halls? But all of these points are not determinant. The key reason top schools have not expanded in the past decades is to do with the preservation of elite status.

Reputation matters. In the UK, some of its best universities like UCL (which has the highest number of students) and Manchester would expand facing the increase in the number of applicants to make college experiences more accessible. It's a kind act in principle ("Really? Aren't they just doing it for more money?"), but at the same time, such behavior in practice inevitably results in a dilution of their names. What we find then is an absence of prestige.

As a society, we celebrate exclusivity. With the expansion of undergraduate courses, some distant subjects (Archaeology, Art History, Theology...) will struggle to recruit enough people. To ensure all the slots can be filled, universities lower their admission requirement. As a result, the average test grades diminish, the ranking slips, and the name of those universities deviate further from excellence.

"Going to Harvard is the best thing you can do to improve your life."

  • The Elite Perception

Politicians have constantly been emphasizing higher education as the promising path to income mobility and respectable jobs. From those promotions, we feel like getting into an elite school is a chance for us to make our way out of mediocracy.

In relative to community colleges, the top 50 universities are incredbly exclusive, distinguished, and luxurious. The slots at those top universities are unbelievably scarce, and scarcity creates value. Being the tiny share of the students who get admitted, it's a mark of pride. In those institutions, they are perceived as the elites in our society, classified as 'world-level geniuses.'

But can an Ivy League degree really change your life?

"Talent is universal, but opportunity is not." – Kennedy Odede.

For Ivies, the total direct charges (tuition, fees, room, board) add up to around $80,000 annually (without considering living expenses). If knowledge acquisition was all colleges offer, why bother spending that much money to attend? Instead, go on Youtube for online courses as they are free! How can the act of one paying hundreds of thousands of dollars on a four-year degree ever be justified?

Besides taking advantage of peer effects (when you're surrounded by intelligent, ambitious, and disciplined people, you are affected to work harder yourself), the value of an elite college experience is more about building a lifelong network 🪩. The people you meet (friends, business contract, and maybe your future wife), the diploma you get on the last day, and the ringing brand name attached to your C.V📝.

Being at a top-notch university gets you into the right clubs. Wall Street and Silicon Valley are almost exclusive when it comes to elitism – the people there have the opportunity to direct access to their dream jobs at Microsoft, Apple, or Tesla. From that start lineup, it's almost a certainty that their advantage will soon rapidly expand...
Night Time at Harvard Square
  • Fitness
"Find what you love. It might be physics, or stem cell science, or acting, or finance. But don't settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it might require a miracle." – Drew Gilpin Faust.

Virtually every student wants to attend the highest-status university to which they can be admitted. But often, they lack interest in finding the right fit. One key aspect of elite colleges that attract students and parents is exceeding faculty skill.

Research takes on a prominent role in determining the ranking of a university. Many people have illogically correlated world-class research with high-quality undergraduate education. Often, the brilliant researchers are less energetically devoted to teaching and more optimized for conducting academic research output. Because of their lack of enthusiasm in teaching, when they stand in front of hundreds of students in a lecture hall, the lesson might as well be disorganized or boring (“Let’s me go back to my lab to do my research!”).

When choosing which college to apply for, perhaps students should look more into the academic programs (STEM v.s. Liberal arts), on-campus environment (politically left-leaning, religion, diversity), and the cost of attending rather than blindly google 'QS World University Rankings.'

  • The Payoff of an Higher Education
"Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education." – Martin Luther King Jr.

It's not a casual relationship that attending a more selective college contributes to higher earnings and better performance in the labor market. The return is even more significant for people of color, especially African-Americans and first-generation students.

But be mindful. Those students in those top schools are driven, initiative-taking, and more capable than the average before they're admitted. If they do well later in life, how much of their success is responsible for their college experiences vs. their underlying talent? It's challenging to measure what exact factors have put them on a higher trajectory.

"There is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents.” – Thomas Jefferson.

Elite schools aren't the best fit for everyone. The workload between a tier one and an intermediate school is enormous. College could be a stressful time in life when students face mental health challenges (anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts). Or on the other hand, people could lose humility and become hubris ("Hey, I'm at Harvard you loser. In 10 years time, you'll be serving my kids on our way to a skiing trip.")

Over these years, the intensity of the competition has grown so out of control to a point where results-driven people hardly praise themselves or celebrate after receiving awards; the sense of accomplishment is unacknowledged. It's not surprising to see someone start planning to get into an Ivy since ninth grade.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.” – Anais Nin.

As high schoolers or undergrads, we should appreciate many little moments in time and recognize that a college diploma won't turn our life upside down. Rather, one's capabilities and ambitions are the keys 🔑.


The University of Impossible-to-Get-Into - Freakonomics
America’s top colleges are facing record demand. So why don’t they increase supply? (Part 2 of “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.”)

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