It was December 2021, and for the graduating high school Class of 2022, winter had begun with a period of anxiety: college admissions. For some of us, we were submitting last-minute applications, hoping to meet the January deadlines. Some others had submitted our applications months ago, aiming to be one of the few accepted into coveted early action and early decision spots. I fell into the latter category. Days before my senior year winter break, I awaited 7 p.m., when Columbia University would release its decision. By 7:02 p.m., I had been rejected.
In May 2022, I accepted my admission to American University. Within my second year here, I declared a Political Science major with a Latina/o/x Studies minor. As a young researcher, I was ecstatic at the prospects that awaited me, but as time went on, the grandiose attitudes of who and what is celebrated in academia overtook my initial joy.
AU is designated as an “R2” university, a Doctoral University with a high rate of research activity. For 2024, the School of Public Affairs is ranked 10th amongst public affairs graduate institutions in the nation. Because of this, AU offered me an abundance of opportunities, which is one of the reasons I ultimately decided to go here, yet a part of me wonders if I would have had stronger opportunities had I been accepted to Columbia instead.
The academic world is full of prestige — for better and for worse. According to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “in 1970, just one in five U.S.-born PhD graduates in economics had a parent with a graduate degree.” Now, two-thirds of them do. This signals a rise in the past few decades toward elitism in the academic field. Furthermore, underneath the veil of elitism in academia is that students of all backgrounds find themselves struggling to find academic acceptance at “lesser-known” schools.
On Sept. 18, President Burwell sent out a campus-wide email informing us of AU’s declining rank with U.S. News: the University was ranked 105th — a 33-place drop from last year. This begs the question: what role should rankings have in one’s decision for a school? Furthermore, should we view lower acceptance rates as an indicator of academic value?
Look to the Ivy League as one of the most grandiose examples of academic elitism in the U.S. With Harvard’s acceptance rate of three percent and Brown’s of five percent, these institutions once existed to push others out: Princeton didn’t even admit its first Black student until 1947. However, these schools are continuously viewed as the “best of the best.” Harvard, Princeton and Brown aren’t bad schools, but they aren’t the right schools for everyone — something that is often omitted in conversations regarding the Ivy League.
So how do we deconstruct academic elitism? While there is no one-step solution, the first step is rewiring our individual brains and our societal perspective. Next time your friend says they are choosing a community college, be understanding rather than judgmental. When your suitemate says they’re a history major rather than a STEM major, be inquisitive rather than critical. There is no “right way” to do college.
Correction: An earlier version of this article was published without completed edits. The article has been updated to reflect those edits.
Sophia Joseph is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein, Zoe Bell and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.