In Search For Colleges, Look Beyond the Ivy League

Here are some schools that offer a comparable, if not better, education.

If you’re a high school student with dreams of attending an Ivy League university or its equivalent in the United States, the news of recent admission rates can be nerve-wracking. Over the last several years, these institutions' acceptance numbers have dropped faster than Donald Trump’s approval rating. Stanford University has the distinction of being the most miserly among the high-status colleges, accepting a meager 4.8 percent of its applicants in 2016. Harvard isn’t far behind at 5.4 percent, while Yale and Princeton are only letting in 6.3 and 6.5 percent, respectively.

The numbers from so-called "second-tier" universities such as Johns Hopkins (11.4 percent), Georgetown (16.4 percent), USC (16.5 percent), UC Berkeley (17.5 percent), and UCLA (18 percent) aren't very encouraging either. Students wring their hands in despair and parents do (and spend!) whatever they must to get their children a coveted spot—SAT/ACT tutors, summer enrichment programs around the world, enrollment at expensive international schools—but in the end, numbers show that while one or two students will score an acceptance, most applicants wind up with letters that begin with “We regret to inform you…" 

When I show these numbers to potential Ivy-chasing clients, their faces fall. What should we do? What can we do? Here is what I tell them: Forget it. Forget Harvard, and forget Stanford, Yale, and Princeton too. There are many, many colleges out there that will give you a comparable—and in many cases, better—education than the overly competitive aforementioned colleges.

There are about 4,000 institutions in America that grant bachelor’s degrees. That’s a lot of choices, and even if you look at just the top 10 percent of colleges, you’re still looking at 400 schools. Given that, consider this approach: Look for a college that fits you and has everything you want in a college education instead of twisting yourself to make yourself more attractive to institutions that will likely turn you down anyway. Don’t be a pleading supplicant in the college search—be the discriminating buyer, the one in control. When you consider a school, ask yourself, “What can this college do for me?” instead of “What can I do to make this college accept me?” It seems silly to think that there is something Harvard or Yale can’t do for a student, but whether it is the right place for you for the next four years is another question entirely.

So now what? To find the right place, you need to examine what you are looking for in a college education. Ask yourself: What do I want to study? What kind of student am I? How do I like to learn? What will I learn, and how will I learn it? Do I do well in a freer academic environment or a more structured one? Do I want the intimacy of a small college, or the anonymity of a state university with 20,000 to 30,000 other students?

These are tough questions to answer, and many students come away saying, "I don’t know what I want, I just know I want to go to a good school." But that’s not good enough. Talk to a professional college counselor to get a head start on this important journey. You owe it to yourself to find your perfect match. To help in that search, here is a list of schools to consider.


REED COLLEGE (Portland, Oregon)

What you need to know: For those who live the life of the mind, Reed is the perfect place. One of the most intensely intellectual colleges in the U.S., Reed is also the home of the only student-run nuclear reactor in the country. Most of its classes are conducted in seminars or discussion groups of about 15 to 20 students each, so there is no hiding behind laptops. Grades are also largely de-emphasized at Reed, and it is not unusual for papers to be returned to a student without a letter grade but heavily commented on by the instructor. If you are grade-conscious, Reed will not be the place for you. But if you are intellectually curious and want to be around people who are the same way, then Reed will suit you.

Notable alums: Steve Jobs, founder of Apple; Peter Norton, founder of PC company Norton Utilities; Richard Danzig, Secretary of the Navy under President Bill Clinton, and adviser to President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign


HARVEY MUDD COLLEGE (Claremont, California)

What you need to know: If you are a talented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) student and are looking at places like MIT or Caltech, Harvey Mudd should be on your list as well. It has an enrollment of only 700 students, but it shares its campus with four other institutions in the Claremont Consortium. This arrangement allows Mudd students to enjoy the intimacy of a small college while taking advantage of the larger Consortium community. Harvey Mudd students also enjoy such privileges as 24-hour access to all buildings on campus and unsupervised take-home exams. Its graduates also earn the highest starting salaries in the U.S. Mudd students are scrupulously honest—their dorm rooms are typically left unlocked and laptops can be left unattended with no fear of theft among students.

Notable alums: Stan Love, astronaut; Eric B. Kim, chief marketing officer for Intel


HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE (Amherst, Massachusetts)

What you need to know: Hampshire describes itself as an “experimenting” rather than an experimental college. The curriculum is heavy on projects rather than being course-oriented. There are no given grades and all assessments are done with narrative evaluations. The student, with faculty guidance, fashions his or her own program based on his or her personal interests. Hampshire is a good fit for someone who might have many diverse interests or finds a traditional college curriculum stifling. Don’t come here if you expect to be told what to do. Because students drive their own education, they are some of the most engaged college students in the U.S.

Notable alums: Ken Burns, documentary film maker; Jon Krakauer, mountain climber and author of Into the Wild; Lupita Nyong’o, Academy Award-winning actress for Twelve Years a Slave


COLORADO COLLEGE (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

What you need to know: Colorado College follows a unique "block plan" where students study one subject for a three and a half-week period—in other words, an entire semester’s worth of material for one class is done in three and a half weeks. After the first block, students take a quick break before launching into the next subject. At the end of a regular 14-week semester, they will have taken about three or four classes, which is what a student at a more typical college takes. Students then have the advantage of hanging around after class to ask questions and engaging in deeper discussion with classmates and professors because they don’t have to be anywhere else. Field trips and lab work are also more easily scheduled. Because blocks are so short, the need to keep up keeps students on their toes. Classes are capped at 25 students to allow a more personalized educational experience. While the block plan might seem strange to some, students at Colorado College swear by the system.

Notable alums: James Heckman, awardee of 2000 Nobel Prize for economics; Peggy Fleming, Olympic figure skating champion


UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)

What you need to know: Waterloo is the premier institution in Canada for science, engineering, and mathematics. Its computer science program is world famous. Unlike most of the colleges profiled here, Waterloo is a major research university enrolling about 27,000 students. Waterloo is also known for its co-op education—students can enroll in the co-op program and work at paying jobs in their majors for as many as six semesters. As a result, Waterloo students graduate with almost two years of work experience under their belt, making them extremely employable. Waterloo is also an ideal destination for techies who have an entrepreneurial streak. Many Canadian tech companies and startups had their beginnings at Waterloo. 

Notable alums: Mike Lazarides, founder of Research in Motion, maker of Blackberry phones; Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the PHP computer scripting language used heavily in web development



What you need to know: Despite its name, Sarah Lawrence has been fully coeducational since 1968. Sarah Lawrence does not offer traditional majors; rather, students take classes in four broad curricular areas: creative arts, history and social science, the humanities, and math and science. Each student works with an individual faculty member to design his or her course of study. Sarah Lawrence has no set curricular requirements, and term papers have largely replaced traditional exams. If you enjoy writing, Sarah Lawrence is the school for you because you’ll be doing a lot of it here. Grades are given for transcript purposes only; narrative evaluations are the norm. Ninety percent of classes here are small, seminar-type discussion classes.

Notable alums: Vera Wang, fashion designer; J.J. Abrams, Hollywood director; Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago; Carrie Fisher, actress

ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE (Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico)

What you need to know: If you love to read and think, take a look at St. John’s. Unique among the colleges on this list, St. John’s offers what is called a Great Books program. There are no majors, no professors, no departments, no electives, no exams, and no grades here—just the program. For four years, students and faculty (the instructors are called tutors) debate the classic works of literature, politics, science, and religion, starting from Homer and Aristotle all the way to Freud and Einstein. At the end of four years, students receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts. You might ask what careers this program prepares students for, and the answer is nothing… and everything. St. John’s produces the clearest thinkers, the most effective writers, and the most passionate speakers and debaters in the country, all lasting skills highly sought by employers. Its alumni are doctors, lawyers, and business executives. Surprisingly, it also produces a number of math PhD students, though they don’t teach formal math courses here.

Notable alums: Francis Scott Key, lyricist of the American national anthem; Ahmet Erlegun, founder of Atlantic Records; Rogers Albritton, one of the 20th century’s most notable philosophers


About the author: John Sy is a Manila-based professional U.S. college admission counselor. He received his certification from UCLA in 2013 and is primarily interested in helping students from non-international schools reach their goals of going to college in the U.S. He is a former math and physics teacher, a former international student in the U.S., and the proud father of a son studying mathematics in Canada. He is available for counseling and consultations. For inquiries, contact 0917.833.3825; [email protected]universitasph.com.

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