Opportunities, not rankings, determine quality of education

Good news never came in small envelopes.

Small envelopes mean small letters — short, trite and prefabricated: “We’re sorry, but due to the volume of applicants …”

Big envelopes meant not only a letter of acceptance to the university in question, but a host of additional forms and fliers. They couldn’t wait to tell you all about themselves (and tell you again and again and again).

And one day, in early spring 2008, I opened up my mailbox to find an envelope stamped at the top-left corner with the name and address of Harvard University.

A small envelope.

I, like many college seniors that year, had applied to a variety of schools across the nation for continuing education. And I, like so very, very many seniors, found that my responses from the Ivy League were in envelopes much too small.

Out of the five Ivy League schools I applied to, I was not accepted to one. Out of the five non-Ivy League schools I applied to, I got into four.

I felt dejected; I was good, it seemed, but not quite good enough. High school advisers and even some college advisers had drummed into my head the notion that the Ivy League was the pinnacle of education. A department head once told me that unless I went to an Ivy League school, I would never make a name for myself as a mathematician.

But having arrived at graduate school and having opportunities to talk with students and professors from the Ivy League and elsewhere, I’ve lost the pretension that the Ivy League resides at the top of a sacred mountain upon which we mere mortals dare not tread.

We too often treat the Ivy League as though there’s a certain indefinable, indescribable “something” that they have, which the rest of the universities must suffer without. Our very inability to describe that something should be a clue that the something is, in fact, nothing.

Do the Ivy League schools offer a better education? Yes, under a proper definition of “better education.” Education isn’t something that an institution simply doles out, like a dollop of mashed potatoes in the cafeteria line; education involves a give and take from the institution and the student.

Harvard, Brown and the rest stand out not because they teach well — plenty of institutions and instructors across the nation do that, after all — instead, they stand out because they better enable students to take advantage of the instruction offered to them.

The same qualities that make the Ivy League schools good make other universities good as well; the Ivy League just boasts a better concentration of those good qualities.

They still have lecturers who put you to sleep in the mid-afternoon, just fewer of them. They still have students who drink until the sun rises and take only the easiest of courses, just fewer of them.

Even amongst my peers in academia, we still talk about “tiers” of education: top tier schools, second tier schools, and so on. Really, though, we should talk about a spectrum of educational quality, not tiers, and even that should be only a rough metric. The qualities that make a university the right choice will differ from student to student.

Yes, I came to the University of Illinois, not Harvard. But I haven’t, since I set foot here, felt like I settled for less.

What matters most isn’t where the university comes in on some arbitrary ranking system.

What matters is taking advantage of the opportunities offered to you, wherever you may be.

_Joseph is a graduate student._