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Is it a secret?

April 8, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Kyra Tan

How does one measure collegiate eliteness, and how is said eliteness communicated to the pool of applicants for our nation’s top colleges? I suppose this question of measurement could be answered by statistical evidence—placing student selectivity, academic rigor and financial endowment as determinants of prestige. However, what about the role reputation plays in defining eliteness? Since my admission to Bowdoin, I’ve come in contact with two kinds of people: those who know about Bowdoin, and those who are unfamiliar with the College. For the most part, I’ve met very few individuals in that first category: people who were aware of Bowdoin’s existence, let alone its prestige. Why is this so?

With an acceptance rate of about nine percent and an academic ranking of A+ on Niche and other collegiate rating sites, one might think that the majority of students interested in receiving a “top-notch” education would be fully aware of this institution and other schools like it. But for some reason, they’re not. I was not. So why is it that myself and other high-achieving students of color are kept in the dark about the Williamses, Bowdoins and Amhersts of the nation? In other words, why does our school seem intent—or, at least, perceivably intent—on staying a secret from the majority of non-white, non-wealthy America? In all honesty, it’s a question I’ve been wondering about for quite some time now.

Like many selective colleges and universities in this country and across the world, Bowdoin was built upon a culture of whiteness; its curriculum, extracurriculars and student and staff populations developed in order to build the cultural capital of its white and wealthy attendees (Bowdoin loves to brag about its admission of John Brown Russwurm in 1824, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that a legitimate Black and Brown population was developed on its campus). As the racial and economic identities of Bowdoin’s admittees began to change, I suppose they decided to keep this white habitus intact, continuing to normalize the College’s white and wealthy homogenous environment created over the years. Of course, I’m not saying this isn’t unlike most institutions within the country, but then why are the Harvards and Yales of the nation so much more well known and “marketable” to high-achieving students of color? For those who aren’t insanely rich, those schools are essentially the definition of elite, leaving institutions like Bowdoin to remain solely on the application lists of, predominantly, high-income prep school kids.

Realistically, I guess it’s not unwise for our school to keep its intended audience limited to a predominantly wealthy population. I mean, by doing so, Bowdoin is able to bring in the funding needed to maintain its financial status while also preserving a campus culture that is familiar and comfortable for the majority of its attendees. And the College itself doesn’t have to go about recruiting students from high schools largely unaware of its academic status, particularly if it has already developed relationships with college counselors from selective private and boarding schools.

However, as a result, the majority of Bowdoin’s admits are either highly educated upper-class white students or highly educated low-income students of color. It’s important to mention that there are very wealthy students of color attending Bowdoin as well as low-income white students, but they are nowhere near the majority. With admits consisting of limited numbers of people of color and dominated by those who are white and wealthy, Bowdoin is limiting its diversity of social and cultural identity, life and environmental experiences and creativity and thought—all factors essential to an enriching college experience.

But back to my original question: how is collegiate eliteness measured among America’s top college applicants? I mean, students like me, who applied to and were accepted to institutions like Bowdoin, probably have a very small population of individuals in their lives who are aware of and can acknowledge how great of an accomplishment that is. In comparison, Harvard acceptees are praised for their achievements from everyone, with no one raising an eyebrow at them for going off to some random college in the middle of nowhere—yes, I’m not so subtly referring to little ‘ol Brunswick, Maine. Now, I’m not implying that college acceptances should be all about recognition, nor should students solely apply to and attend institutions just for the name brand. Nevertheless, getting into college may be one of the most important moments of an individual’s life, particularly if they worked hard to get accepted or were unsure of their academic qualifications. As such, some people would like even the slightest bit of acknowledgment for their accomplishments.

Excuse my frustration, but I just can’t understand why students don’t know, or care to know, about Bowdoin. Just to be clear, I’m not placing any fault on the students themselves. In the minds of many people, liberal arts colleges are schools that don’t offer rigorous math and science programs and lack the opportunities that create successful careers for their graduates. In the minds of others, they are performing and visual arts schools that can’t prepare anyone who is looking to start a respectable career. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be farther from the truth—but then again, how would they know that?

The interpretation of eliteness has seemingly taken on two different definitions: (1) where statistical data is the sole indicator of collegiate prestige, or (2) what society perceives as “elite” in relation to familiarity and popularity, which is in no way, shape or form identical. I mean, I understand that this disparity probably isn’t going to change for a long time—I’m assuming most historically white colleges and universities would like to maintain the white and wealthy aura they’ve created on their college campuses. But if we were to somehow lessen it, even a little bit, then so many more high-achieving, low-income and minority students would benefit. Of course, these are just thoughts in passing.


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  1. Jeannette Thomas-Brown says:

    In response to “Thoughts in Passing” Gabrielle I enjoyed reading your bold thoughts. It is not often enough that we encounter the youth speak out in boldness and ethical correctness.
    As an educator our desire is for our students to address the real world issues that connect with their personal experiences. And be able to compare and contrast how the differences and apply it to their will to act and become a part of the change.
    In closing, you have left a foot print on your “Thoughts in Passing” on the issues at hand surrounding race, economic leverage, higher education and disproportionately and unequally being served in our nation.

  2. Townie says:

    Is it possible that how well a school is known is linked to its size? The bigger the school, the more alumni there are scattered around the globe to spread its name. Harvard’s alumni association currently boasts 400K alumni around the world. It graduated over 8k in 2019. Bowdoin had 473 graduates in 2020. Even if every single class since Bowdoin’s 1794 founding was that big (no chance) and all alumni were still alive (also no chance), that would only be ¼ of Harvard’s current alumni.

    Schools large enough to compete in NCAA’s Division 1 benefit from the exposure successful athletic programs bring, especially when sports are televised. Compare the publicity that women’s basketball prowess brings UConn in D-1 to the exposure Bowdoin gets in D-3.

    For decades Williams, Bowdoin and Amherst have ranked very well in the publications that rank national liberal arts colleges. Anyone who consults those publications would be aware of these schools.

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