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I moved with my family from Taiwan to the United States when I was 10 years old, to a small suburban town in New Jersey. Our high school had a “guidance counselor” but I don’t remember receiving much guidance when it was time to apply to college. I was told to send a list of schools where transcripts needed to be mailed.
Without proper guidance, my main criteria for choosing colleges were:
- Ivy League schools. Everybody knows these colleges by name, even though I never understood what made these schools “the best.” I knew they were exclusive and expensive. I also knew that I would bring pride to my family if I ended up at one.
- Somewhere completely different from our small New Jersey town. The popular TV show “Felicity” convinced me that big cities are great places to go to college and find true love.
- Anywhere my two older sisters were not.
That was it. In the absence of real, practical information, I applied to a set of colleges that were entirely influenced by my emotions, a TV show, and the narrative that if I didn’t go to “the best” colleges, I would diminish my chances at success.
I ended up going to NYU because I was rejected from all the Ivy League schools I applied to and it was ranked highest among my other acceptances. My parents, a lawyer and a homemaker, went through years of financial strain in order for me and my sisters to enroll and graduate from college. Collectively, our tuition added up to almost half a million dollars, not to mention a lot of stress and anxiety caused by the weight of that debt.
After I got my bachelor’s degree, I worked in graduate admissions at NYU for a few years, and I learned that what makes a “good school” has nothing to do with rankings and everything to do with what each individual needs to succeed — a concept known as “fit.” College fit is determined by six factors: academics, social life, culture, geographics, finances and demographics. For the best fit, a student should check off as many of those elements as possible.
This is why I joined the staff at The Opportunity Network (OppNet) almost 10 years ago. Our nonprofit works with 1,000 students of color from historically underrepresented and low-income backgrounds in New York City. I wanted to guide these students to the best colleges for them and challenge the idea that private, exclusive and expensive universities are “the best” no matter what the cost.
Over 90 percent of OppNet’s students will be the first in their families to go to and graduate from college. So many of our students have devoted and loving families like mine — ones who are willing to take on years of financial anxiety so their children can go to the Ivy Leagues. They have bought into the myth that a degree from a prestigious institution will shield their children from hardship — the type that they have had to endure — and offer a clear pathway to prosperity.
But many non-Ivies have, in fact, been shown to deliver the best outcomes.
The organization Educate to Career (ETC) measures colleges’ “economic value” by looking at the average salaries of recent graduates, the percentage of graduates employed within a year of getting their degree, the percentage of graduates employed in a field related to their studies, and other similar factors. ETC’s 2020 rankings place just one Ivy League institution (Dartmouth) in the top ten. Eight are public schools — including the lesser-known College of New Jersey.
This is why, in their first year with OppNet, students are exposed to as many different types of colleges as possible — including every school in the CUNY and SUNY system, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), as well as small liberal arts colleges like Muhlenberg College, Hampshire College, Lafayette College, Bowdoin College and more. We also provide college guidance sessions, financial aid advisors, and family discussions about college affordability and “fit” to ensure each student’s college choice is guided by the right factors rather than reputations, emotions or myths.
Today, our students are represented at over 125 campuses across the nation. Of the 58 percent enrolled in private colleges, just 10 percent are enrolled in Ivy League institutions. And yet, 92 percent of our students graduate from college, with 89 percent of those graduates securing jobs (or graduate school admission) that align with their career interests within six months of getting their degree.
We have achieved these impressive results not because our students are going to name-brand colleges. We have achieved these results because our students attend colleges that fit their needs and match their ambitions, which in turn helps any young person to thrive.
AiLun Ku is President and CEO of The Opportunity Network.