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An Abundance of Ivy

Accepting a different university

As the weather warms up, a favorite American hero returns: the student accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. This year there are at least three new members of America’s most exclusive college club: Martin Altenburg of Fargo, North Dakota; Ivan Vazquez, from Boise, Idaho; and Ifeoma White-Thorpe, from Rockaway, New Jersey.

All three have become something of local heroes, interviewed by television stations and newspapers. Their resumes are, obviously, impressive. CBS News reports White-Thorpe is “student government president at her school, places high in her advanced placement classes and is known for her writing and poetry. Recently, she also won first place in the National Liberty Museum’s Selma Speech & Essay Contest.” CNN describes Altenburg’s schedule as a scramble between “cross-country. And swimming. And track. And orchestra. And chamber orchestra. And youth symphony. He’s the district lieutenant governor for Key Club. And he runs a Twitter account for his calculator.” Further investigation shows that this Twitter account is named “Mr. Steal Yo Girl” and has 420 followers.

It takes a certain degree of vanity to go through the work of applying to these eight schools (plus “safeties”) arbitrarily organized into a marginal athletic conference, as well as a degree of privilege. You have to be able to afford SAT prep, do extracurriculars, read books from a young age—all the respectability of middle-class life. You also have to be willing to work hard, day after day, without spending too much time on Netflix watching 13 Reasons Why. As Vasquez put it: “Just believe in yourself; you can do it. Just get involved in your school. Colleges love to see that you’re getting involved, no matter in what way, as long as you push yourself and just do what you love.”

It’s easy enough to make fun of Vasquez’s sentiment. Does anyone think that most of high school is about doing what you love? At the heart of this rhetoric is a very American, very neo-liberal ideology that masks oppression and emptiness with buzzwords like “grit” and “personal responsibility.” In Silicon Valley, the epicenter of this kind of thinking, the teen suicide rate is four or five times the national average, and the CDC was called in to investigate the area’s high schools.

But I’m not here to criticize high school kids, which would be a waste of everyone’s time. I want to argue something else: that Martin Altenburg and Ivan Vasquez and Ifeoma White-Thorpe are very regular people. They’ve dreamt the fantasy of eight different college lives, and now they are waking up, realizing they have to go to school. This decision is inevitably a closure, a disappointment. Does it really have to be like this?

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A few weeks ago, my friend’s sister was deciding between two universities: Tulane, in New Orleans, and Amherst, in Massachusetts. My friend asked for advice, and I answered: Go to Tulane because it will be warm all year and the constant cold in the Northeast is depressing. Whether my advice had any impact, I don’t know. The sister is going to Tulane.

Choosing a college based on weather may seem silly, but it’s a reflection of how little divides most colleges. Assuming the cost of attending or the financial aid given is similar (a very big assumption for many students), most of America’s top colleges provide similar educations. They all produce investment bankers, computer scientists, writers, and politicians. Writing for The New Yorker in 2005, Malcolm Gladwell remarked: “Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite—and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.”

I like that description—exquisitely constructed fantasynot just because it encompasses the strange combination of dreams and staged performances that go into the tours, rejections, and accepted student days that take over campus in April, but also because it outlines the dilemma of of three teens accepted to all 8 Ives: Their freedom of choice is an exquisitely constructed fantasy.

If top-tier colleges are just luxury brands, similar educations beneath the advertising and marketing, then what are they really choosing? The city? The weather? The dorms? All fine ways to break ties, these small differences, but not anything that has to do with why you would go to college in the first place.

But if you’ve been accepted to every Ivy League school, why must you choose?

Consider the story of Guillaume Dumas, the man who snuck into the Ivy League. From 2008 to 2012, Dumas sat in lecture classes at Yale, Brown, and a number of other schools (Stanford and UC Berkeley, among them). He didn’t end up with a degree, but pieced together an education from everywhere. “I was just sneaking into classrooms in literature and philosophy and poli-sci and even psychiatry,” he told The Atlantic in 2015. “I just found out how to do it. When to hide. What kind of alibi to have or to behave with other students—what to tell, what not to tell.”

Beneath Dumas’ years-long deception is a clear case for affordable college and economic fairness. “I think of it as an act of political protest,” he explained to Fast Company. “I was angry at how university education excludes people who cannot afford it. What happened to the belief that sharing knowledge and great ideas should be free?” Dumas’ use of the word free takes on a double meaning here. Of course, he means free in the financial sense. Like the aspirational projects of the public library and parts of the internet (Wikipedia, Open Library), colleges build themselves up on the promise of a society transformed by valorizing what we know and can find out. Dumas’ gambit, which didn’t take anything away from other students, seems to just be taking these colleges at their word.

But when Dumas uses the word free he is also gesturing towards the possibility of freedom, a freedom that applies not just to ideas, but to students. In a way, the false promise of Altenberg, Vasquez, and White-Thorpe is that getting into the entire Ivy League is a kind of a freedom. However, simply choosing one college over another doesn’t embody any more of a productive choice than choosing Lyft over Uber for a late-night ride. What Dumas reveals is the possibility of a different design, a dream where every Ivy League school isn’t a choice but an accessible institution. This dream overcomes the narcissism of small differences and glimpses at a path to a greater academic freedom. It turns the private success of Dumas and these three high schoolers into something much more newsworthy than an acceptance letter. An Ivy League education has great value, even if the actual names attached to the degrees (Harvard, Yale, Brown…) are interchangeable. Let’s learn the value of that education.

If Martin Altenburg and Ivan Vasquez and Ifeoma White-Thorpe are prospective Ivy League students, others should ask for the same privilege. A chance to go to school wherever the sun is shining, wherever the head and the heart desires.