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Harvard Schmarvard: A Small College Shines

This will be the first in an occasional series of blog postings on little-known colleges that prove their worth. My 2003 book Harvard Schmarvard argued that the big name schools don't provide a better education than the little name schools. Research indicates that qualities that bring success---persistence, humor, kindness, patience---are acquired before we ever take an SAT test. The brand name schools look good because they lure lots of students with those qualities, but students with similar character strengths who go to unknown schools often do just as well, particularly if they pick colleges with great strengths in areas that interest them.

I tend to ramble about this topic a lot. Parents who write and seek my advice on college selection get an email-full of such Jayisms. In many cases they go away realizing I am a bore. But occasionally I say the right thing, and years later they let me know that. Here is a message I received today from Michael Bledsoe, pastor of the Riverside Baptist Church in southwest D.C. and an adjunct at the Howard University Divinity School. Four years ago, when he and his wife were agonizing over where to send their first child, Kelley, off to college, they read some of my columns and wrote for more advice. Kelley was attracted to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., I told them that in many ways that school would be better for her than an Ivy League university. In his new message, Bledsoe said this:

"Agnes was a terrific choice for Kelley. She spent one year abroad, studying in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a second semester in Hong Kong at a sister school there. In May she graduated magna cum laude, passed the Foreign Service Exam, scored high on the LSAT, was chosen as the outstanding senior in the economics department, was chosen to spend three weeks in China for a grant empowered research project put together by her professors and is flying this Friday to Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. Of course, I'm not going to give Agnes all the credit for Kelley's achievements but they deserve a whole lot of credit (they had four Fulbrights this year). It's a small women's college that is stunningly beautiful and deeply committed to empowering young women."

The Bledsoes live in Arlington, a hotbed of Ivy ambition. But it is the student, not the school, that makes the difference. A great student like Kelley Bledsoe going to a school like Agnes Scott can bring exciting results. Those of you who are about to head off to a college your grandmother never heard of should keep that in mind.

By Jay Mathews  | July 28, 2009; 6:22 PM ET
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You go, Jay! This is such wise advice to prospective college students and their parents. The big name schools often don't equate to the best learning opportunities for undergraduates. Small liberal arts colleges like Agnes Scott graduate a disproportionate number of scholars and leaders. Indeed, in addition to the four Fulbrights you mentioned, Agnes Scott produced two Goldwater Scholars this year -- the same as Harvard!

I confess I'm NOT an unbiassed commentator. (I'm a big fan of Kelley Bledsoe's and president of Agnes Scott.) But I applaud your efforts to encourage students and their families to cast a wider net in college selection -- and to recognize that great colleges and exciting educational opportunities can be found far beyond the Ivy League.

Posted by: ekiss | July 28, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for championing the virtues of small liberal arts colleges! I am a graduate of Agnes Scott College and an educator. I have steered many of my students over the years down this path (several are currently ASC students) and they and their families have expressed a deep appreciation for the type of education that a school like ASC provides. It is intense and rigorous, but values like community, service, and deep intellectual curiosity are embedded in the college culture. Add this on to real access to your professors and you have the ingredients for an education that is personal and unique. I hope more families begin to take your advice!

Posted by: yharding | July 29, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Thank you so shining a light on a jewel of an institution. As an alumnae of Agnes Scott, I constantly tell others about my wonderful experience. Agnes Scott allows her students to become independent and bright leaders and thinkers. I think that the opportunities are endless and there is a sense of community and values that can not underscored. It is often cliche that everyone knows your name, but in the Agnes Scott Community that is a true statement. Also Agnes Scott's curriculum is just as challenging as any Ivy league school and her graduates are competitive in many graduate programs throughout the country and the world. From my personal experiences, My Agnes Scott education prepared me to enter and complete my law degree at a Top 30 law school. I hope students look to "smaller" institutions.

Posted by: ascgrad02 | July 29, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

As an alum of Agnes Scott College I am very pleased with this endorsement of high quality liberal arts colleges. Despite the SAT scores of the students and other indicators of "excellence" in the US News and World Report rankings, the education at Agnes Scott is just as rigorous as that found at an Ivy League University. And, bright and hard working students can be stars in such a small, nurturing environment. I wish students would give colleges like Agnes Scott a chance and not all flock to the same institutions.

Posted by: anitabarbee | July 29, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

To each his own, I guess. Because my parents didn't know any better, I went to a state college that is an internationally known party school and have paid the price career-wise. My husband went to a well known, elite school and more than 30 years later, when people learn that's where he went, they say, "Wow, that's a good school". That's what I want for my child -- for people to say "Wow, that's a good school" when they find out where he went to college.

Posted by: margaret6 | July 30, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Hurrah for a positive ASC article! I'm an alum, and very proud of it. I remember we used to say that while Harvard was easy to get in, and hard to stay in, Agnes Scott was hard to get in AND hard to stay in. You gotta work to succeed at Scott!

(who calls it Agnes? Yikes.)

Posted by: pork1 | July 30, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

More alumnae chime of success! I never thought I would select such a small women only environment for myself. My parents silently introduced me to the campus over many years of "...your dad used to live near here" or "your grandfather worked here." I came to realize over visits to many other schools including GA Tech and University of Maryland that none of the schools came close in terms of quality of life! Agnes Scott classes are 13 to 1 and taught by PhDs not Teaching Assistants. I even had some classes with as few as three students. My largest class was 33 students. I participated in student leadership, class and spiritual life on campus. And do not forget the DORMS are "PALACES!" I was never afraid to voice my opinion in class. I took a wide array of classes. I always intended to major in computer engineering or something very technical. I ended up majoring in Mathematics and Economics and going on to get an MBA from American University. I work as a software engineer for The Boeing Company at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Who would have thought I could do that with a liberal arts degree? I carry with me a confidence in my education and sense of self gained at Agnes Scott. This confidence is reflecting now on my daughters who I hope and pray will also choose "Agnes!" Don’t forget in these tough times the smaller schools often still have money to provide financial aid where larger and state schools may not. Agnes was able to meet 100% of my financial need at the time I attended college. I came out owing only 12000 in student loans. I know that tuition rates have gone up but I also know many alumnae like myself who give back to this great institution whatever they can.

Posted by: lrwilson | July 30, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

To Margaret6: Hurrah for your honesty. Many people agree with you but would be shy about saying it so clearly. But since the data suggest that the reputations of the colleges you and your husband attended had little to do with your eventual success, and since I sense you share my distaste for reaching conclusions based on anecdotal information, why cling to a dependence on what others think of your (and your child's) college's name?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 30, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I am the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and so when my son was accepted by Harvard I was beside myself with joy. At first, though, I couldn't help but think "There really isn't that much of a difference between the quality of instruction here and what I got at my small, non-selective private college." In fact some of my son's classes were huge and a few of his instructors were graduate students. At my school almost all classes were small and taught by regular faculty members.

The first indication that something WAS very different was the evening I was invited to a dinner for parents and students at the Kennedy School of Government. I found myself seated at a table with the president of a Central American country, a state senator and various "star" professors from different departments. The conversation at dinner that night was very interesting indeed. When it was my turn to introduce myself I thought "Oh my goodness, I've got to make myself look important" so I announced myself as the mother of the future president of the United States. Everyone laughed heartily but afterwards a professor came up to me and said seriously, "So your son is going to be president."

"Yes," I replied solemnly. "I just hope I live to see it."

"Oh, you will" she continued. "You will."

After all, educating future presidents is what Harvard does. This was no joke to that professor at the Kennedy School.

Since my son's graduation in 2000 I have learned that what a person gets from a "first tier" college are intangibles. As Margaret said, people are awed when you mention your school. Doors are opened and opportunities are plentiful. I must confess that I encouraged each of my sons "to go to the best college you can get into."

That said, not everyone is interested in big law firms, the presidency, Wall Street, or internships with the Supreme Court. For people who want a good basic education, this can be obtained at many excellent American colleges and universities. My college prepared me well for my career as a teacher, which I found to be wonderfully enjoyable and rewarding.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 31, 2009 1:59 AM | Report abuse

I love the lauding for Agnes Scott College and the recognition/recommendation that less renowned colleges have much to offer.
Agnes Scott College is a wonderful place for women to follow their academic dreams. I have very fond memories of my time there and would be delighted if my daughters choose to go there when the time comes. I would like to note that while Agnes Scott College may not be a household name, it has been around for over 100 years and there are many grandmothers who have not only have heard of Agnes Scott but actually attended.

Posted by: smcrocker | July 31, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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