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Not all colleges are equal

| December 5, 2010 8:00 PM

After 50 years in higher education I have some things to say that may not be popular with those who give frequent lip service to quality but avoid meaningful discussion about it.

In our egalitarian society many maintain there are few appreciable differences between the level of quality we find in highly selective institutions - the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters (women's colleges in the East), Stanford, Cal/Berkeley, to name a few - and schools that accept most applicants. We hear, "You can obtain as fine an education at Hippopotamus University on the Missouri River as you can at Harvard." Though most variants of that statement come from people not working at selective schools, they do have limited validity. Motivated students educate themselves, employing professors and fellow students mainly as catalysts; even yet, the odds are against them. Most fine educations come from fine institutions like most fine suits come from fine men's stores.

My daughter chose a highly selective Eastern women's college knowing her degree would be expensive; the costs are nearly $50,000 a year. We were paying for better odds. Jennifer wanted to be a doctor; at Bryn Mawr College, 95 percent of the pre-med students in her class were immediately accepted by accredited medical schools. Contrast that to the 16 percent average acceptance rate at nearby state supported schools in Idaho, Washington and Montana in 1989 when she matriculated. The College of Idaho, also private, has very enviable graduate school placement statistics; my son Fred chose graduate work in chemistry after taking his degree there but likely would have been admitted to medical school had he wanted medicine. His career as an inventor does not require a prestigious degree, though quality of education was essential to his success. Different colleges suit different needs.

The playing field is not level no matter what college recruiters might tell you. Students seeking careers in highly competitive fields such as medicine, veterinary science, law or government are almost always better off going to prestigious colleges and universities than institutions that are not very selective, even though they seem cheaper and make claims to be "just as good." I went to state schools that were not then selective; for many years I taught in them, too. They served me well. Like Fred, I did not need a prestigious degree. Still, I harbor no illusions about my academic credentials.

Scott Reed, one of the best attorneys in North Idaho, took a bachelor's at Princeton and a law degree at Stanford. Mary Lou, his wife and a retired state senator, went to Mills and Columbia. The late Harry Magnuson had an MBA from Harvard. Justin Stormogipson, my ophthalmologist, did med school at Dartmouth and a residency at Stanford. Maj Stormogipson, a pediatrician, also took her medical degree at Dartmouth. Senator Crapo? Harvard Law. Representative Minnick? Harvard Business School and Harvard Law. Governor Otter was graduated from the College of Idaho. Representative Simpson and Senator Risch may be exceptions since Simpson went to Utah State and Risch to Idaho. But Simpson went on to dental school at Washington University in St. Louis and Risch to the University of Idaho Law School; their later success in politics may be attributable to graduate studies. And there will always be exceptions to any rule, thank goodness.

Highly selective schools do not recruit much but we err when we believe they do not covet students from Idaho; they do. What's more, they have access to financial aid so cost need not be a deal breaker. Consider this paraphrase of the Hallmark slogan - "we care enough to send them to the very best."

Tim Hunt, the son of a linotype operator, is a retired college professor and nonprofit administrator who lives in Hayden with his wife and three cats. He can be reached at linotype.hunt785@gmail.com.

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