Confessions of An Ivy League Reject

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Twenty-five years ago this month, Harvard said no. So did Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and Williams. I can still see my 18-year-old self standing by the mailbox in stunned disbelief, holding six white envelopes. Six anorexically thin white envelopes. The precise wording of the form letters has been lost to history, but I can still conjure up their face-saving phrases like "many strong candidates" and "very difficult decisions." Reading them one right after another, it seemed like an Ivy League chorus was cheerfully wishing me "the best of luck with your college career." Best of luck, that is, as long as I enrolled somewhere else.

Even with good grades and high test scores, I should have known that I was courting rejection by the sheer act of applying. The odds of getting into schools like Harvard and Dartmouth that year were worse than 1 out of 4. Perhaps if I had lived somewhere distant like Indiana or California, I might have found comfort in raging against the injustice of East Coast elitism. My problem was that by my senior year in high school, I was already an insufferable East Coast snob. So by the social standards of suburban Connecticut in the mid-1960s, the multiple rejections consigned me to the outer darkness, destined to be shunned on commuter trains, blackballed at country clubs and never allowed to buy a home in a community with four-acre zoning. I would have to plod through life stigmatized by the knowledge that I had been judged "Not Ivy League material."

Such adolescent angst was, of course, ludicrous. Every life has its disappointments; rejection by the college of your choice is probably more serious than not finding a date for the prom and less grievous than your mother throwing out a collection of 1950s baseball cards. Even then I was aware that my safety school was far better than most. So I stoically trudged off to the University of Michigan, a college that seemed majestically impervious to the damaged goods it was receiving. Michigan more than fulfilled its part of the bargain; the lingering gaps in my education (the inability to commune with head waiters in flawless French, tone-deaf ignorance of classical music, and scientific training that stopped with Mr. Wizard) are entirely my own fault. At 43 I can safely conclude that the lack of an Ivy League imprimatur has neither marred my career nor deprived me of any social entree that I would have enjoyed.

Why then, a quarter of a century later, do I still find painful the memory of those six undernourished envelopes? Why do I periodically peek into college-rating handbooks to see how Michigan is faring against the Ivy League? And why do I sometimes blanch when friends innocently suggest lunch at the Harvard Club?

This lingering sensitivity, which I am chagrined to confess, has been exaggerated by the cities where I have lived and the work that I do. Both New York and Washington revere the Ivy League like Club Med worships tanned bodies and a strong backhand. Odd how when visiting the Midwest I drop the University of Michigan into conversation with an avidity I rarely display back East. Lawyers and physicists may often rate colleagues by the quality of their professional education, but an enduring adult fascination with undergraduate pedigrees remains acute in the fields I know well, such as journalism and politics, where it is still possible to achieve success through talent, luck and a good B.A. degree. For example, at the Washington Post in the early 1980s, so thick were the references to bright college days in Cambridge, Mass., that I sometimes felt I was working at the Harvard Crimson alumni association. Peggy Noonan in her best-selling White House memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution, loudly complains that her colleagues in the Reagan Administration "were always asking me what college I went to." Noonan, sensitive to the status slights that accompany her Fairleigh Dickinson degree, theorizes that in a fluid environment like the White House, people pop the Ivy League question to categorize one another while simultaneously underscoring their own importance, as in "Yes, she does seem bright; she went to Radcliffe, but before my wife."

My instinct is to join Noonan in her populist fury against the "Harvardheads" in government. But rationally I know that at my age (and Noonan's) such resentment is silly. For millions of college-educated men and women like us, whose undergraduate histories do not automatically inspire awe, the struggle is over -- and we won. For we have reached the stage in life % where what we have learned and what we do with it are all that should matter. In fact, aside from the pride of parents who emblazon their children's college crests on the rear windows of their Accords and Audis, it is hard to find much objective evidence that a thick envelope from the Ivy League possesses the power to transform lives. I recently asked half a dozen sociologists whether there is any way to measure the career advantages that come with a prestigious undergraduate degree. Their consensus was yes, of course, Princeton and Yale alumni are disproportionately successful, but it is unclear whether this superiority is due to the factors that originally impressed the admissions committees or the supposed added value of their elite education. It was the old nature-vs.-nurture debate transported to the tables down at Mory's.

Applied to my own life, their message seems clear. I am pretty much the same person I would have been had Harvard said yes -- or had Dartmouth written apologetically to say that the envelopes had been switched at birth and I was really a prince, not an educational pauper. Yet I wonder. My own sense is that those rejection letters changed me in ways that I am still hard-pressed to define. Total defeat is never easy, especially when it comes so suddenly so young. Sometimes I fear the experience eroded my self-confidence. But mostly I prefer to think it toughened me, taught me humility, trained me to value what I accomplished on my own and -- most important -- tempered my tendencies toward snobbery. Not a bad haul from six form letters mailed a quarter-century ago.