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But Can Your College Run a Mile in Under Four Minutes?
When Roger Bannister broke four minutes in the one-mile run in 1954, the world was astounded. This was a superhuman feat, placing Bannister among the best of the best in the athletic world – among the elite.
That is until two months later, when Bannister raced against another runner and they both broke four minutes. Bannister won, though, and although two is company, the company Bannister kept remained quite elite against most standards.
But over time, more and more people kept accomplishing this impossible task. A high-school junior broke four minutes in the mile run in 1964. (Sounds a lot more fun than taking the SAT!)
(Or maybe not.)
As more and more people joined Bannister’s elite company, and a sub-four-minute mile became the standard rather than the exception for male runners, the question had to be asked: can we still use the word “elite” to describe these runners anymore?
Does Chasing Labels Actually Make You Faster?
This is the problem that a lot of universities face. Many seek to brand themselves as elite, but this requires defining the concept for themselves, to an extent. Others have grown accustomed to an elite status that has been bestowed upon them by the outside world, but they are forced to realize that as the world changes, its standards change, and they must rise up to meet new standards of “elite.”
And it’s more than just a label; it’s an atmosphere. Being an elite university isn’t like studying for a test just to pass and then forget everything you learned. It’s a constant battle for betterment, a simultaneous setting and smashing of standards.
As a student and prospective college applicant, you are called into the discussion as well. And it’s a difficult discussion. You are trying to discern the qualities that make a school elite at the same time as schools are trying to present these same qualities to future students. Hopefully what you’re seeking and what they’re displaying line up, right?
Of course there’s also the possibility that “elite” isn’t in your criteria at all. It’s a buzzword that’s thrown around a lot, but does it really provide you with anything more than a set of vague implications? Before you consider the status of a school, look for the attention they put on their student body or on the unique qualities of the school.
Elite is a classification, and it encompasses a wide variety of colleges and universities with a vast array of offerings. It doesn’t guarantee uniqueness at all. On the other hand, one of the most important things to remember is that elite doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and it shouldn’t. Status constitutes something different to every student.
Big Fish and Little Fish
My parents went to (and met at) a small liberal arts college in southern Michigan. And by small, I mean smaller than some big city high schools. Still, it was harder to get an A there than at other schools in the state with bigger names.
My parents also argued that the small class sizes and close-knit campus environment added up to an unparalleled learning experience. The ability to participate in discussions rather than receive lectures and to develop a more one-on-one relationship with your professors was invaluable to them.
My parents’ college didn’t have a low acceptance rate. They didn’t accept everybody; as I recall they let in slightly over half of the applicants. My school, by contrast, had a low-teens acceptance rate, even though it was big enough that it accepted far more students total than my parents’ college.
Still, they had a reputation for producing high-quality scholars. Not everyone had heard of Hillsdale, but those who had nodded with respect when it was mentioned. When I mention Cornell, though, it’s usually met with a moderate degree of respect and usually recognition, but often people are underwhelmed because when they think of the Ivy League they think of HYP.
So is Yale more elite than Cornell? Is Cornell more elite than Hillsdale?
Well-Known, Known Well
It would certainly seem that way. As far as acceptance rates and general reputation go, there’s a pretty clear pecking order among that list.
But are well-known schools always known well? Do you find yourself comparing the acceptance rates of Ivy League schools more than their, say, extracurricular offerings? Does the designation of “elite” consign the subject to an existence as a household name that no one in the house could tell you much about?
A school is sometimes well-known for its famous graduates, or its selectiveness, or its research, but it took me a while to realize that these things would have very little effect on you if you went there. You aren’t Barack Obama, so why do you care that he graduated from Harvard Law? If you end up getting into Princeton, the fact that 93% didn’t get in won’t affect you very much.
You’ll feel like you’re in the company of the elite (after all, 93% didn’t get in, right?), but you didn’t choose your own company. You chose a school based on how it chose a company that you don’t even know if you’ll like.
The definition of elite is always changing with the times, but if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I have to define it for myself whenever I want to use it. Not doing so would be as silly as rounding up everyone who’s ever run under four minutes in the mile and admitting them to Harvard. There’s still a lot to respect about being a member of the elite, but there’s also nothing wrong with looking at things in a different way.
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