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Why Do Top Students Think They Don’t Belong at Elite Colleges?


Why Do Top Students Think They Don’t Belong at Elite Colleges?


Ensuring that bright, promising, talented women and minorities are able to live up to their career potential is a serious issue that one might say borders on a movement. And removing any obstacles or barriers that might be in their way, from student to CEO, has been proven to be in the best interest of the businesses that hire them after graduation — diversity does wonders for a bottom line.

But, what about before those students even reach college?

The college and university level is generally the accepted place to start preparing students for the challenges and obstacles they may face in their future careers. But many studies, including Bentley University’s PreparedU survey, show that a majority of parents, educators and business professionals all feel that specific programs for encouragement and mentorship should actually be implemented as early as high school.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a story called “Who Gets to Graduate?, which explored a pilot program of “interventions”: 25- to 45-minute online exercises for incoming freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin. The goal of the “interventions” was to increase graduation rates by removing the self-doubt that causes a greater percentage of high-achieving but lower-socioeconomic-bracket students to leave school before senior year, even when they have the same SAT scores as their more privileged classmates, by preemptively controlling the messaging that students receive about belonging and ability.

“Students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability. These feelings were especially virulent in moments of educational transition — like the freshman year of high school or the freshman year of college. And they seemed to be particularly debilitating among members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny: women in engineering programs, first-generation college students, African-Americans in the Ivy League."

Originally created by a team of social psychology researchers at Stanford, the interventions effectively encourage incoming UT Austin students by controlling messaging related to their sense of belonging and their abilities before they even encounter those challenges at the university level. What makes UT Austin unique is that, as the most prestigious public university in the state of Texas, it automatically admits the top 7 percent of students from each high school around Texas. The early results showed that those targeted messages effectively cut the performance gap in half between high-achieving advantaged freshmen, “who look a lot like the students anywhere who go on to attend elite universities,” and disadvantaged freshmen who traditionally struggle with self-doubt — especially those who may be the first in their families to go to college.

“Beyond economic opportunities for the students themselves, there is the broader cost of letting so many promising students drop out, of losing so much valuable human capital. For almost all of the 20th century, the United States did a better job of producing college graduates than any other country. But over the past 20 years, we have fallen from the top of those international lists; the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree. During the same period, a second trend emerged: American higher education became more stratified; most well-off students now do very well in college, and most middle- and low-income students struggle to complete a degree. These two trends are clearly intertwined. And it is hard to imagine that the nation can regain its global competitiveness, or improve its level of economic mobility, without reversing them.”

What if the simple messaging “interventions” being tested by the UT Austin researchers, correctly targeted and timed, were shown to every incoming freshman across the country? Could it have a dramatic impact on the confidence level of female and minority students, in particular, leading to a lifelong increase in their chances for success? Or what if similar messages about gender equity were sent to each new hire as part of a human resources onboarding process?

It’s easy to wonder, from these points in the NYT story, if C suites and board rooms would not look much more diverse and therefore stronger and more globally competitive — not to mention giving minority students and women the years of confidence they would need to be more ambitious and assertive from the very beginnings of their careers.

To read the New York Times Magazine story in full, head to

April Lane is a freelance writer. 

Learn more about Bentley’s PreparedU Project, which examines challenges facing millennial workers, the companies that employ them and the colleges and universities that prepare them.


Bringing in kids with a strong liberal world view increases failure rate. They waste too much time believing one of the numerous victim groups they fall into justifies and feeds their self doubt. Use the scholarship on conservative leaning students and your numbers will go up.

You can have all the interventions you want, but they won't work if students feel that they can't afford to either start or continue their education. The reason we have fallen in percentage of young people getting university degrees is quite simple: it has become prohibitively expensive.

I'm a person who some years back went to an AAU and "Public Ivy"-designation Big Ten school, having had my dad pass away on the farm and seen modest resources dwindle. With the benefit of that early lens at a highly-competitive, major university, to me it makes perfect sense that less advantaged students might not endure all that comes at them for four years from the relatively wealthy, very self-involved and often showy students who know so little of their challenges. This is, as any New Yorker -- native or adopted -- will know, a culture of economic domination. It's of culture of two, three or more sets of cultural and value assumptions for upper, upper-middle, middle, upper-lower and truly lower class citizens. The affluent student can most often immediately access tools, money, support and doting parents to guide them through their college experience. In fact, I can hear the helicopters hover now. The disadvantaged kid most often lacks most or all of this personal support, and institutional support is never, ever the same thing. So, as those years go by at college it is not common to reach "the last straw" and bring an end to the isolation one feels when advantage is flouted in ones face -- both intentionally and quite unconsciously every day -- and you have neither a voice, nor the advantaged experiences, nor a set of resource to respond or keep up. And, getting back to my subject of "affluent detactment," it sure looks like nobody cares at all, as all that privilege flies by your "unimpressive" self every day. Many can dig down into themselves and find a path the transcend this level of challenges, but many too are internally beaten down by a thousand of these forces weighing on them.

A bright, capable kid from an awful high school generally knows what kind of school s/he went to, which means the tapes playing in the back of the head are always saying 1) all I did was outrun a bunch of losers, and 2) I have the course names on my transcript with As beside them but I didn't have much of the subject. You counteract that by closing and breaking the bad high schools -- as, thankfully, we're beginning to do.

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