An Elite Education

Apparently, an elite education has its disadvantages.

Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

This is not to say that students from elite colleges never pursue a riskier or less lucrative course after graduation, but even when they do, they tend to give up more quickly than others. (Let’s not even talk about the possibility of kids from privileged backgrounds not going to college at all, or delaying matriculation for several years, because however appropriate such choices might sometimes be, our rigid educational mentality places them outside the universe of possibility—the reason so many kids go sleepwalking off to college with no idea what they’re doing there.) This doesn’t seem to make sense, especially since students from elite schools tend to graduate with less debt and are more likely to be able to float by on family money for a while. (Read the whole article here.)

I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton, but I did attend a small, expensive private school in Illinois that called itself “the Harvard of the Midwest.” I went there wanting to become a teacher, and I left with a teaching job. And I’m still a teacher. And I will probably be a teacher for the foreseeable future. Sure, I could have gone to the state school down the street that was known for its teaching program and cost less than half what my family and I paid for my university education, but I wanted to go to a liberal arts college. I wanted a degree in English, not English education. I wanted to learn how to think more than I wanted to learn how to teach because, let’s face it, no one can really teach you how to teach, but they can encourage you to open your mind and find new ways of doing things and solving problems, and that’s what a liberal arts education provides. There have been times when I’ve felt some guilt for spending so much money on my education, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to be able to have it.

I resent the implication in this article that student with money who attend expensive, private schools find it beneath them to become lowly schoolteachers. I realize the article is pointing out that this is an attitude that graduates of elite schools shouldn’t have, but I resent the implication that they do in the first place. I don’t think it’s true, necessarily, and I think that making broad generalizations like this is a mistake.

I also think it is an incredibly broad generalization that students graduating from expensive, private schools have less debt and can float by on family money. I absolutely have never “floated by” on family money. I moved out on my own at 22 and made next to nothing. Sure, I moved back in with my mom to help me pay for grad school (at another expensive, private institution), and she helped immensely, but I certainly did not “float by.”

I think this article just serves to perpetuate the tired, old notion that students who attend private institutions for undergrad are spoiled brats and lost souls who never fight to find their true calling in life because it would be a waste of their very expensive diploma. Most of the students I graduated with owed half a house in student loans and went on to pursue careers in writing, graduate work, or education with their English degrees rather than law school or public relations. The best thing my liberal arts education taught me was to do whatever it was that made me happy, regardless of the paycheck.

Granted, I was a Midwestern English major, which could make a difference here, but I think the rich-kid-without-a-true-purpose is a sad stereotype to keep perpetuating.

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