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Are Elite Colleges Trending Downward?

Some of my most memorable students this year surprised me in the best way with their college choices.

An All-American superstar leader turned down Duke for the Presidential Scholarship at the University of Miami. A deeply thoughtful and brilliant engineer chose the University of Cincinnati. A Native Indigenous student said no to Stanford and Yale to accept the Jefferson Scholarship at the University of Virginia. A published author refused to apply to any Ivy League universities and will attend college overseas. 

Yes, this is just a snapshot. But it is a growing trend among the thousands of students I interact with every year. Things are changing. Elite colleges are ludicrously expensive and are often viewed as exclusive rather than inclusive environments. This new generation of American teenagers is conscious of elitism, cost, and politics. They want a different kind of college experience. One filled with opportunity, yes, but also balance.
The paradigm started to shift around the pandemic. I noticed a lot more students focused on their in-state public universities. Whether it was staying close to home or the ability to attend a prestigious university at a fraction of the cost, students started to look at their public flagship as a beacon of balance. As the pandemic eased, out-of-state students were intrigued by those public flagships. The ability to "leave home" was attractive. To be a part of a larger community filled with tailgating, networking, and school spirit was just what the doctor ordered after being held back by Covid restrictions and rules for so long. 
Just as powerful to this generation of students (and their parents) is their mental health. One of the fastest growing extracurricular activities that I am seeing among high school students is membership and leadership in clubs devoted to destigmatizing this crushing epidemic. Students do not want to be in a college environment that breeds perfection, extreme competition, and unhealthy expectations. Instead, they are looking for a place to land, to grow, to mess up a bit, to pivot, and to thrive, both socially and academically.
Colleges are making headlines almost on a daily basis. That was never the case ten or twenty years ago. It is an indication that the idea of college is being challenged. Colleges must adapt. Hefty tuition increases every year with little to no financial aid will no longer be tolerated. Faculty and staff will need a different approach in teaching, advising, and supporting these students. Our kids need different support than we did in college and they want a different kind of college experience too. 

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This generation of college-bound students has higher expectations, but not necessarily in the predictable areas. They want zero to no debt. They want good food, nice dorms, and school spirit. They want winning athletic teams and their own winning mindsets. They want opportunity and realize that coming from an "elite" college is no longer required. I like this approach. It is a healthier one. A more inclusive one. And a more attainable one for all.