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The Problem With Private College Elitism

“You’re attending Emerson College? That’s a fantastic school,” my interviewer said.

I couldn’t tell you which interview this was, or at which company. Not because I didn’t keep a detailed record of my applications, but because it happened so often that it was almost automatic.

The first few times it happened, I swelled with pride. I was still a senior at a state university, on the cusp of graduation, and looking for my first post-grad opportunity. My plan all along had been to attend a state school for undergrad and then a private graduate school. I’d had Emerson in mind from the beginning; I knew its reputation in media and the arts. The fact that interviewers were essentially complimenting my decision made me feel validated. 

Until it didn’t. “And where did you attend undergrad? Where is Westfield State University?” That was a common follow up question.

I almost couldn’t blame interviewers for asking. I grew up just north of Boston, Mass. and I was accustomed to hearing about all the Boston-area schools, assuming I’d someday attend one of them. In the end, as a senior in high school, I applied to Simmons, Lesley, Emerson and Harvard, plus a few state schools scattered throughout Massachusetts. 

When I was making my college decision, I was encouraged to choose a state college for undergrad to save money. I come from a family with a Northeastern University legacy as well as a history of state college education. Many of my family members have graduate degrees. Everyone knew that, from the beginning, I also wanted to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s. 

With the rising cost of education, my dad suggested I go to state school to begin with. Doing well at a state college, he said, would also help me get into a private graduate program with more grants and scholarships.

He wasn’t wrong. After four years at a state university, I was accepted into my first choice graduate program at Emerson with a selective fellowship.

Almost immediately, the praise started rolling in. It wasn’t the praise that bothered me. Almost all of my friends went to state colleges, and all of my cousins are currently at state schools. They were truly proud that I’d graduated from college and was continuing my education. 

The problem was the elitism that I began to notice. 

Westfield State started out as a cheaper, second choice option for my undergrad. I was excited to go, but not nearly as excited as I’d been the year before, imagining myself in the middle of Boston at Emerson. But as I grew into Westfield and took advantage of opportunities, it became so much more than just an option. It became a crucial launching pad for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t until I left Westfield, and the university’s strong belief in providing students with an in-depth, hands-on education, that the elitism sank in. Nobody had heard of WSU. Nobody was impressed by it. I didn’t expect much, because I know that employers are more concerned with technical capabilities, soft skills and previous experience—all three of which I’d gotten plenty of exposure to while in college. But I also didn’t expect that while employers largely ignored my state university education, they were swooning over my private school one.

There are plenty of potential reasons for this discrepancy, and I consider them all when I’m judging people for judging my education history. Emerson has a strong reputation specifically in Boston. Through the alumni network, known as The Emerson Mafia, it seems as though it has a strong national and international reputation as well, but I have no personal experience with that. All the jobs I’ve applied to have been in the Greater Boston area, so it makes sense that Emerson is well-known and that there’s a fair number of alumni working locally. And my Emerson degree is a graduate one, so it’s possible that some people are impressed by my continued studies instead of by the name of the school. 

Even ignoring all that, there are the occasional instances where someone looks at my LinkedIn or my resume too quickly and assumes Emerson was my undergrad degree. And they’re insanely impressed. A few seconds later, when I clarify that I actually went to a state university, they no longer are. A few interviewers have directly asked me why I attended Westfield. This is usually after they applaud me for my professional experience, as if they’re saying, “But you’re so talented. Why did you go to a public university?”

Elitism against public universities has the same insidious effect on our workplace culture as the lack of diversity in media industries. Public university undergrads aren’t afforded the same internship opportunities. When we graduate, we aren’t given the same chance at (many) jobs. Experts say that networking is key to the job market today, and state university students aren’t afforded the same network, because all the so-called “best” in their industries graduated from private schools. So the cycle continues. 

There are many legitimate reasons people attend state universities. Economic reasons are fairly common. Most of my classmates were middle class, but we weren’t upper middle class. State university is an excellent financial option for lower income families, especially if students can commute from home and save money. I tutored on campus for two years, and I met a lot of students who worked full-time in retail or customer service to pay for school, or who had transferred in from community colleges to save money. 

State universities are also an excellent option for marginalized groups. At Westfield, we have robust TRiO and Urban Education programs designed to allow low income, disabled and first generation college students an opportunity to attend college. We have an incredible disability services program, which was a prime reason why several of my disabled friends chose the school as their top choice. 

This isn’t to say that Emerson—and other private colleges—don’t have these opportunities. They absolutely do. The problem isn’t with private colleges; it’s with people’s perception of state colleges.

By knocking state colleges, you’re essentially turning away all those people: a talented, diverse student body who may be capable of changing the world. By saying no in favor of a private college graduate, you’re not affording the state college graduates the same opportunity to rise to the challenge. One of my friends, a current senior at Westfield, launched his own mental health website that is changing lives already. His work is now being featured in an MTV music video, he’s attending a national mental health conference and he receives submissions from all around the world. I asked him, about a week ago, if he regretted his decision to go to a state college.

“No way,” he said. “I have no idea if Dear Hope [his website] would have started or anything, if I didn’t come here.”

I’m only one person, and my experience is only with one (incredible) state college and one (equally incredible) private college. But I know that the compliments about my Emerson education would be nonexistent had Westfield State not set me up for that success. At Westfield, I had access to hands-on internships and co-ops, in-depth independent study projects, an excellent honors program, scholarships, departmental awards and research conferences. By the time I left Westfield, I no longer considered it my second choice, my could-have-been-Emerson. I considered it my alma mater, and I was proud.

A few weeks ago, two important things happened. One afternoon, I was on Emerson’s campus, if you can call it one, when I saw undergrads moving out. They hastily pushed bins filled with stuff toward their parents’ cars. For a few seconds, I felt a twinge of sadness; that feeling that, “This could have been me.” A few days later, I returned to Westfield as a distinguished alumni to give a speech to current students and faculty. In the middle of my speech, my eyes started to water until I finally ended the speech with tears running down my face, looking out into a crowd of similarly red-eyed professors and students. I couldn’t help but tear up thinking about my undergrad experience, because I’m proud to be a Westfield State University alumni, and I love that school with everything that I have.

Last month, I was at an interview when one of my interviewers asked about my undergrad. “Westfield State,” I said, trying to rush through the moment. Nobody has heard of Westfield, and they’re usually more impressed by what I did while I was there than they are by the college itself. 

To my absolute shock, he said, “Me too!” We launched into a discussion of our favorite professors that left me fondly remembering my days of journalism class. 

State college elitism doesn’t have to persist. There are many ways that state colleges are offering just as high quality of an education. The important thing becomes, as alumni, that we continue to make a difference. That we try to keep a strong alumni network, the way schools like Emerson are known for. That we, as alumni, kick ass and then attribute part of our success to where it all started. That we offer to talk to current students, like I did last week at a career prep class, to give them suggestions for how to kick-start a fulfilling career. That we represent our state college background not as something to skip over and ignore, but as a symbol of pride, as something that will never leave us. 

“It won’t matter where you went to undergrad,” my family used to tell me, when I was worried that it would have a negative impact on my career. But I want it to matter. I need it to matter. Because where I went to undergrad is a huge part of the reason that I’m where I am today, and nothing will ever change that.

Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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