College Application Booster​®: Get ahead on your college application!

Kids Are Giving Up on Elite Colleges—and Heading South

‘Even if I could’ve gotten into Harvard, I wouldn’t have gone.’

By Eric Spitznagel | Monday, April 22, 2024

The recent wave of violent protests and arrests at elite universities like Yale and Columbia have only confirmed for Scott Katz that he made the right decision to attend Elon University. The North Carolina college, where he is currently wrapping up his sophomore year, is a long way from his hometown of Lafayette Hill, the predominantly liberal Philadelphia suburb where the average home costs $610,000.

Katz, who is Jewish, says the antisemitism that’s increasingly visible at colleges nationwide—especially in the Ivy League, and other elite institutions like Stanford and Berkeley—hasn’t even touched his campus.

“I haven’t been affected by it at all,” Katz told me. “I definitely feel very safe on campus regarding my religion.”

He notes that Elon was one of only two universities in the country to get an A grade from the Anti-Defamation League for its policies protecting Jewish students against hate. (The other is Brandeis.) According to the ADL ranking, Elon has seen zero “severe antisemitic and anti-Zionist incidents” and zero “hostile anti-Zionist student groups.”

“It was a big deal,” Katz says of the level of comfort he feels on campus.

Just a few years ago, in the fall of 2022, Katz was nervous about his college decision. His mom had grown up in South Carolina but fled the South at 18, disturbed by the racism and antisemitism in her local community, vowing never to return.

Despite his mother’s reluctance, something in Katz’s gut told him to look south. “Even if I could’ve gotten into Harvard, I wouldn’t have gone,” says the 20-year-old. “I wanted a school that felt right for me, not someplace that we’re told we’re supposed to want to go.” Many of his fellow Elon students, he added, come from northern states, too. When he first arrived on campus, “it seemed like every other person was from Maryland, New Jersey, Maine, or New York,” he says. “It was like being back in the Northeast, but warmer.”

Katz is part of a burgeoning trend in higher education. An unprecedented number of students are gravitating away from Ivy League universities and looking to Southern colleges that wouldn’t have been on their radar twenty years ago. The exodus is fueled, sources told me, by warmer weather, great college sports, and a more relaxed atmosphere, which stands in stark contrast to the Covid restrictions many Northern universities put in place from 2020–2023. (Elite colleges in the North often had the strictest Covid policies—from requiring students to wear masks at all times to limiting gatherings, inside and out, to five people—while Southern universities from Florida to Alabama to South Carolina allowed students to congregate in large groups, neither masked nor socially distanced.)

But another factor driving kids away from elite schools is their dominant progressive politics, which many feel deepen cultural divides rather than promoting healthy debate. The old-school vision of colleges serving as an open forum for ideas has been replaced with an us-versus-them mentality, where there’s only one “right” answer to any thorny issue and the winner is the one who shouts the loudest.

Both Brown and Harvard saw dips in their application numbers this year—by 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively. (Early decisions to Harvard were down 17 percent.) And while applications to private colleges in mid-Atlantic (25.3 percent) and New England (29 percent) states have risen since 2019, the gains have been small compared to Southern colleges, which saw a 42 percent increase overall. The surge is even more pronounced at state schools. Public colleges in the South saw a total 62.4 increase in applicants, more than double their Northern counterparts, according to Common App data from earlier this month.

Southern colleges are also seeing a surge in applicants from northern out-of-state students. In 2023, for example, about 19 percent of total enrollment at Clemson in South Carolina came from New York and New Jersey—a big change from 2017, when the top out-of-staters were from the Carolinas and Georgia. Almost half the undergraduates from University of Miami in Florida came from out of state in 2023, with students from New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts taking three of the top five slots. Meanwhile, more than half of Elon University’s entire enrollment for 2023 hailed from northeastern states, with Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York leading the charge.

“Never before have we seen so much interest in colleges like Clemson, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State,” says Rick Clark, the assistant vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, noting that kids are coming from places like Wisconsin or New Hampshire. “That’s just unprecedented.”

Archie Glazer, 16, from Boston, is one prospective student looking to head south for college in a couple years (Elon is his top choice, but he’s still looking).

“Kids up north were pretty unhappy during those Covid lockdown years,” says his dad, Larry Glazer. “And colleges down south were offering something different. My son and his friends would look at TikTok and see all these college kids going to football games, throwing parties, living their lives. It has an impact.”

Julie Ketover, a mother of two in South Jersey and a Yale alumna—she graduated summa cum laude in 1996, with a BA in psychology—wasn’t sure what to think when her oldest daughter Alex applied mostly to Southern schools like University of South Carolina, Elon, and University of Georgia.

“She was looking at Clemson,” says Ketover, a former attorney turned life coach. “I was like, ‘Clemson? For a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey?’ ”

Alex is now a sophomore at the University of Miami, and many of her friends from New Jersey have also opted for colleges in the South, like the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia. “And these are some really smart kids,” says Ketover. “Their priorities are just different from ours.”

“These kids aren’t drawn to old gothic Ivy League edifices, musty libraries, hallowed dark oak halls, and ghosts of dead white men,” she added. “They want luxury. They want comfort. A lot of these Southern schools have invested in infrastructure. They have nicer dorms. They have nicer facilities. There’s air conditioning.”

They also don’t have the same incentives to pick a school for its supposed “prestige.” As many students are beginning to realize, a marquee college name doesn’t always translate to greater success. A 2023 study by a Dartmouth business professor found that just 11.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have an Ivy League education, and only 9.8 percent got their MBA from an Ivy League.

Georgia Tech’s Clark says the kind of education that propels students into a stable upper-middle-class life is no longer exclusive to elite universities. “Some of the highest paying careers right now are STEM-heavy,” says Clark. “Some Ivies offer that, but you can also get it at Virginia Tech, Clemson, NC State, and Georgia Tech, where it’s cheaper, warmer, and friendlier. It’s a better return on investment.”

Ketover, the Yale graduate, agrees. “I don’t know that the value of an Ivy League education is the same as it used to be,” she said. “People ask me all the time, ‘Would you do Yale again?’ I would. I loved it. But it used to mean something to go to a really, really good school. I think it means less today. I’m working with clients in organizations that are hiring, and it really doesn’t fucking matter to them where you went to college. You got your degree, and that’s enough.”

Another factor driving kids away from the Ivies and other elite colleges is the wave of antisemitism that’s spread across their campuses, particularly after Hamas’s invasion of Israel on October 7. After the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania were forced to resign in the wake of their disastrous testimony to Congress last December on how they’re handling Jew hatred on campus, one college consultant said he’s seen many student applicants turn away from the Ivies.

“We are working around the clock with students to restructure their college lists as a result of the fallout,” says Christopher Rim, the CEO of college consulting firm Command Education. “One student we work with recently abandoned her yearslong dream of attending Columbia” because of antisemitism claims. “We’ve also seen a number of Jewish students who are interested in transferring, especially from Columbia, Cornell, and Penn.”

Ketover, whose daughter was a freshman at the University of Miami during Hamas’s attack, said she was impressed when the college’s president Julio Frenk became “one of the first college presidents to issue an unequivocal condemnation of Hamas.” She added: “It made us feel so much better.”

It should be noted that elite Southern schools like Duke, in North Carolina, and Vanderbilt, in Tennessee, are not entirely immune to the radical politics sweeping American campuses. But the advantages once offered by elite universities, like the freedom to debate ideas and disagree, increasingly seem to be disappearing. In the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, released by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), four Ivy Leagues were in the bottom fifteen—Yale, Dartmouth, Penn, and in last place (with a score of 0.00), Harvard.

And that climate of censorship is rubbing off on kids. According to recent polls, over 80 percent of college students say they self-censor when expressing their views on campus, and at least 69 percent would be at least somewhat uncomfortable disagreeing with a professor about a political topic. (Meanwhile, a large number of Southern colleges rank high when it comes to fostering a climate of free speech.)

“I’ve always believed that education is about critical thinking, not indoctrination,” says Matt Griffin, a lumber supplier from Chocorua, New Hampshire, and the father of two sons. When his oldest son decided to enroll at college sports powerhouse Clemson, Griffin encouraged him. “Now that they have all the football money, they didn’t build a diversity center, they built a business school,” he says. “I told my son when we visited the campus, ‘That’s what you wanna see.’ ”

Meanwhile, old stereotypes about the South, including its historical racism, are being rejected by many students applying from up north. For example, Bethal Miles, a 23-year-old Chicago native, decided to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communications next fall, even though the school has a racially charged history and still struggles with diversity. Southern Miss has just 38 percent minority enrollment among around 10,000 undergrads. Still, Miles was undeterred.

“Since day one, my classmates have made me feel welcome,” he told me. “Other than the accents and their cowboy boots—that was wild to me, man. They wear cowboy boots everywhere—it was like I’d found my second home.”

After four years studying at Southern Miss, Miles said he has encountered some racism—he’s heard the occasional slur or has been confronted in bars by white patrons, who’ve accused him of stealing his own cell phone—but he also discovered a culture unlike anything he’d experienced in the Midwest. His brothers at Omega Psi Phi, an African American fraternity, love to hunt, for example, he says. “They’ll take dogs and go out into the forest. And they’re not into partying all night. They’d rather sit around a campfire, in their cowboy boots, and tell stories. I’ll go home and tell my friends back in Chicago, ‘The South isn’t anything like you think.’ ”

Miles is quick to add that the low cost of his college—the annual tuition price tag at Southern Miss is $11,618—is another reason he’s happy with his choice. “A lot of my decision had to do with price.”

But Ketover notes the cost of Southern schools isn’t always lower. “The truth is, sending a kid to Miami is a fortune,” she said. “Way more expensive than some other places we were looking at.” The total cost for University of Miami, including housing, food, and fees, is $93,666. Harvard, meanwhile, is a comparatively affordable $82,866. Yet, Ketover feels it’s worth the expense. “With the world the way it is, I’m so happy she’s there,” she says.

Southern colleges also offer something Northerners rarely find at elite schools: an introduction to people who don’t think or behave exactly like them, but are welcoming nonetheless. When visiting her son Scott, a student at Elon University since 2022, Francine Katz’s interactions with students and teachers has changed her entire perspective on Southerners. “I might not agree with the politics in the South, but Northerners could really learn a lot from Southerners on how to treat people,” she says.

Archie Glazer feels the same. After visiting several elite colleges in the Northeast this spring, he is trying to keep an open mind about where he’ll apply next year, but can’t get past his first impressions.

“Everybody looked so miserable,” he says.

The Free Press

Originally published on The Free Press on April 22, 2024

Share this Article

Become Our Next Happy Family

Schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation with our enrollment team to learn about how your student can benefit from our services. Together, we can determine if this is the right fit for you and for us.