In Praise of a Nonelite Education

Many wonderful colleges can give students an excellent education, argues Katherine Maloney, as well as provide opportunities for Ph.D. graduates to grow as teachers and scholars.

May 22, 2019

When I left my tenure-track position at Harvey Mudd College (acceptance rate 15 percent) for Point Loma Nazarene University (acceptance rate 76 percent), my then dean said to me, “Mudd students are great, but they’re not the only ones in need of excellent instruction.”

The recent college admissions scandal and all the news-media coverage surrounding it has sucked me in. I find it both salacious and disturbing. I’ve read opinions exploring many implications of the scandal, including those on the impact of income inequality on university admissions more broadly, the questionable distinction between the (illegal) actions of these parents and the legal practice of legacy admissions, the moral cost of our obsession with status and the role of competitive parenting, and the implications for students with disabilities who rely on the same testing accommodations that were exploited in this scheme. All those are important concerns, and I hope that this conversation leads to overdue changes in the admissions process of selective universities.

Yet in all the conversations about who is and is not worthy of an elite education, I worry that we are reinforcing the deeply flawed assumption that drove these parents’ actions. Namely, that an elite education is the only one worth having. On the contrary, hundreds, if not thousands, of wonderful nonselective colleges and universities, staffed with enthusiastic faculty at the top of their craft, are ready to welcome students and give them an excellent education.

I had the privilege of attending such an institution, Pacific Lutheran University (acceptance rate 75 percent). Despite a high school GPA, SAT score and list of volunteer and extracurricular activities that might have made me competitive for admission to an elite university, I chose that university for its solid regional reputation … and attractive financial aid package.

At Pacific Lutheran, I went all in. I studied abroad in Chengdu, China, and Havana, Cuba. I crammed in as many elective courses as I could, and I discovered the joys of molecular biology, computer programming and quantum physics. I honed my critical thinking and writing skills in my religion and literature courses. And I watched my early infatuation with organic chemistry grow through three summers of research into something much stronger.

When I applied to Ph.D. programs in chemistry, I was delighted to find the application process to be much more sane than what I’d witnessed for undergraduate applications. I also found that I was no worse off for having attended a little-known college. I applied to 13 of the top 30 graduate programs in chemistry and was accepted into all but two of them. As a graduate student at Cornell University (undergraduate acceptance rate 13 percent), I discovered that my classmates came from undergraduate schools that ran the spectrum in size and selectivity: from Western Washington University (acceptance rate 85 percent) and Messiah College (77 percent) to Wake Forest (28 percent) and Princeton (6 percent), to name a few. Moreover, in grad school, I saw no discernible correlation between undergraduate college reputation and performance in the classroom or laboratory.

Knowing that I ultimately wanted to teach, I sought out opportunities throughout my graduate education. My first two years at Cornell, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant for the 700-student organic chemistry lecture course, leading office hours and review sessions. After my adviser moved to Harvard University in my third year, I served as a teaching fellow for a nonmajors chemistry course called Molecules of Life. Those classes were great. The professors I assisted took pride in constructing high-quality courses and delivering engaging lectures. In that respect, they were very much like the professors I’d had at Pacific Lutheran.

I started my academic career at Harvey Mudd College, a highly selective university that prides itself on excellent teaching and mentoring of students. I loved my time there. My students were brilliant and extremely motivated, and the college had excellent resources -- both for students and for young faculty members like me who wanted to improve as teachers. When I went into my dean’s office to tell him that I had accepted a position at Point Loma Nazarene University (to move closer to my fiancé), I was heartbroken to be leaving such a wonderful institution. That’s when he reminded me that other students were in need of great instruction.

He couldn’t have been more right. Each year, I encounter students who are eagerly extracting the most out of their Point Loma education, asking questions in class, coming to office hours, accepting research positions in our labs, studying abroad. The organic chemistry class I teach at the university is not materially different from the organic chemistry class I taught at Harvey Mudd, which is not materially different from the classes where I served as a TA at Cornell and Harvard. My colleagues are devoted teachers, researchers and participants in their professional communities.

And we are not alone. There are many wonderful nonselective colleges and universities eager to meet students where they are and give them an excellent education. And these same institutions provide attractive opportunities to Ph.D. graduates seeking to grow as teachers and scholars.

So when I think about the college admissions scandal, knowing that those students had great educational options easily within their reach makes the illegal lengths these parents went to -- and the legal lengths many other parents go to -- a sad waste. Pushing to get privileged but less qualified students into elite schools robs those same students of the opportunity to excel at another institution that might have been a better fit for them.

Whether you’re a high school student watching this story and feeling hopeless or a newly minted Ph.D. applying for faculty positions, elite universities are not the exclusive keepers of knowledge or opportunity. The world of organic chemistry is just as magical at Point Loma, or at Harvard, or at your local community college. Come join me and see.


Katherine Maloney is a professor of chemistry at Point Loma Nazarene University.


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