11/29/2011 06:14 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

There Are No "Top Tier" Colleges, Schools (or Kids!)

Last week I visited a school called the Young Women's Leadership School (YWLS) in East Harlem. Founded in the 1990s, YWLS was the first single-sex school in the New York City public school system. Its mission, which it fulfills admirably, is to prepare girls for college. Its students are almost all girls of color from families with limited resources and little experience with college.

Despite my admiration for the school's mission, a nearly ubiquitous underlying assumption about kids and educational institutions arose during a meeting with the YWLS college placement director. The two students "guiding" my small tour group were sitting nearby as he explained the college admission process.

"Well," (I paraphrase) "we have many kinds of girls in the school but they all go to college. We have smart girls who go to top tier colleges, we have average girls who go to the typical places and we have girls who struggle, but we get them into college, too." I cringed, as I had taken a few moments to talk to both student guides about their plans and knew that one was hoping to attend Long Island University and the other aspired to enroll at Manhattan College. I don't know whether the college counselor thought of these girls as "average" or "struggling," but the looks on their faces betrayed their certain sense that they were not the "smart" ones.

The college counselor was otherwise delightful and I'm sure meant no harm, but his descent into the "smart, not-so-smart dichotomy" was automatic, as was his unquestioning characterization of colleges as first tier, second tier, etc. This is the season when nearly 2 million high school seniors are applying to or waiting to hear from colleges and universities. Too many of them suffer, often literally, from this personal and institutional hierarchy of worth that masquerades as a meritocracy.

As for students, the chase for conspicuous success has consequences for the losers to be sure. Delightful, bright, interesting kids are crestfallen because they were "rejected" by the Ivy League school of their (and/or their parents') dreams. Those who attended the "top tier" public or private schools are especially susceptible to disappointment, as they were tacitly "promised" this shiny outcome as an unspoken mutual commitment with their elite secondary school. Even the most competitive and/or pretentious private school will place far fewer than half of their graduates in the highly selective schools they were conditioned to lust after. The rest of them are left to feel they've fallen short.

The winners lose, too, perhaps more severely in some cases, because stress, risk aversion, long hours of homework and grade-grubbing leave them cynical, incurious, uninteresting and too often neurotic, anorexic or, perhaps worse, pathologically pleased with themselves. It can take many decades to repair the collateral damage at either end of this dysfunction continuum.

The institutional delusion is just as bad. Aided and abetted by U.S. News and World Report rankings, colleges take pride (and ranking points) from rejecting as many candidates as possible. Virtually nothing in the rankings or in the public perception of colleges and universities has anything to do with great teaching. It's all branding and status. This is not to say that prestigious colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth are not good. They may be very good indeed, although I've heard dreadful reports of indifferent graduate assistants and large lectures as the default experience at some Ivy League undergraduate programs. But the public perception of "excellence" (goodness, how I dislike that word!) is merely reputation, perpetuated by those who benefit by association.

It reminds me of the Juilliard School. I've had scores of conversations with Juilliard graduates who are still licking the wounds from their Juilliard experience, yet the unquestioned assumption is that it is the "best" music school. Of course those who know music understand that it is viewed as the best school because they only accept applicants who already play at a very high level. All that's left for Juilliard is to keep from damaging them, a task at which they have uneven results. I'm being a bit rough on Juilliard, as there are marvelous teachers there and some students do, indeed, benefit from the program. But the reputation is primarily a result of highly selective auditions, not great teaching or a great learning community.

Humans and institutions are a whole lot more complicated than this silly reputation game. Many of the most interesting, creative and able students I've met are not good at standardized tests, didn't really care about getting perfect grades, and would never get into Harvard. And some students who have gotten into the most selective schools are dreadfully boring and unimaginative. The four Calhoun students during my 13 years who immediately come to mind as the most likely to change the world in a positive way went to Reed College, Oberlin, Swarthmore and the State University of New York.

So you high school seniors, applying to or waiting to hear from colleges, ignore all the nonsense about top tier schools. And especially ignore the ridiculous notion that your SAT score or grade point average defines who you are.