Georgia Tech is harder for kids to get into. Is that a good thing? 
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Has Georgia Tech's rise to elite college status come with price?

Students face lower chances of admission as national reputation draws more acclaim and applicants


A few days ago, I attended and wrote about a presentation on getting into college by Rick Clark, the admissions director at Georgia Tech and a respected leader in the field.

I shared some of what he told parents and kids about the challenges of getting into select schools including Tech, and also described a passage in a book he has coming out in September. In that passage, Clark described a difficult meeting with a father of a talented high school senior student and a Tech legacy who was not admitted. (Reading that piece will help you understand today’s piece.)

I received several notes from people in that same situation – Tech grads whose kids/grandkids were not admitted. (I have to add: Some of those students ended up at other engineering programs, including Clemson and Louisiana State University and are quite happy there, according to their parents. The kids feel they have greater life balance than students at Tech.)

Tech points out 60% of its students are from Georgia, and its transfer population is typically 70% Georgians. The school has created several pathways for students to eventually end up at Tech after a year or two somewhere else. 

An engineer sent me a long response about the lack of other peer programs in the state for aspiring engineers, which I think merits discussion and am sharing with his permission. He also raises the issue of Tech’s mission.

(The writer’s reference to 20-year-olds comes from something Rick Clark told high school students at the session last week: Contrary to their assumption that admissions officers are old guys with pipes and patches on their jackets, Clark said most are women in their mid 20s.)

The reader wrote

Tech is elite enough...too elite. Students should not have to do engineering education outside the state (at a level suitable to their talents) because the faculty and staff of the Georgia Institute of Technology went on a quest to become an Ivy League campus (with all the thought conformity this entails), and, at the same time, for years stifled growth of other engineering schools in Georgia. 

They, along with the Board of Regents, did not practice proper stewardship. A price needs to be paid for that, and not by a dad who is seeing a family lineage at Tech end. 

On the subject of the dad whose generations-long family Tech connection has now been snuffed out by a group of 20-year olds, and an admissions director who "got it," but didn't really get it: My gut emotional reaction is that if Georgia Tech does not value lineage, lineage should not value Georgia Tech. If that lineage is Georgia and can vote here, it should insure resources are directed inside the state to build up the other engineering schools at the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University, so that even if Georgia Tech does not care about its own, the state of Georgia still does.

I have little truck with a Georgia school that will not admit qualified Georgians, nor qualified alumni, nor their children...though I admit a huge personal bias in this, having lost something through Tech's arrogance and former selfishness, something I'll never get back, and resent the losing thereof. 

I wrote back, saying: 
 

I understand your points, but Tech still admits far more Georgia kids -- the school is 60 percent in-state students, and Rick Clark said a computer science major from Bainbridge is still going to be favored over one from Silicon Valley with nine apps already in the market. 
One issue is the Georgia pool of applicants is getting better and better so that makes the competition stiffer even among the in-state students vying for admission.
There is value to the state to Tech's increasing prestige in terms of research dollars coming in and the quality of faculty it attracts. And the prestige certainly helps the Georgia kids who graduate land good jobs. 
 

To which, the reader responded: 

You’ll notice I did not say "alumni legacy kids should always be admitted," because, yep, I did get the "rising tide of excellence does not float all boats" bit...and honestly have no solution. It's part of life, things change. A 1920s MLB baseball player never makes it out of Double A ball today, cars of today easily beat cars of yesteryear in just about any category you would care to name. Time marches on. 

My objection to all this collegiate Darwinism (and such it is) is that there seems to be no value given to the legacy of Georgians.  Quite frankly, I think the faculty and staff guilty of that, in spades. Until this decade (and over the objections of Georgia Tech) the state of Georgia failed to care about those who lost out getting in and had to go out-of-state to study engineering. That meant higher costs, no Hope Scholarship, etc. 

And other states seem to have woken up before we did. Alabama has three engineering schools (at least), South Carolina two, Virginia at least three, etc. etc. (With tradeoffs, of course...Auburn will never take off the way Tech has simply because UA alums won't allow it, and Clemson and USC probably do limit one another, though USC may have started breaking out.) 
Still, Tech was engaged in monopolistic behavior and the Board Regents let it happen. Affected me personally, too, in 2005, since I had to stay out-of-state to get my first engineering master's ("If you can't get a prestigious master's, get a lot of them.") 

Well, we got three or four programs in-state now, so the situation will get resolved as we get a quality spread -- Tech, UGA, Georgia Southern/Mercer, KSU, probably about in that order -- able to serve the entire spectrum of student needs and abilities. 

UGA will eventually be what Tech used to be – in the 50s/60s/70s, a place practical engineers come out of – but without the élan. Maybe. 

As far as the out-of-state-derived faculty and staff not caring about Crackers, well, that will probably also resolve itself one day, as interest outside the metro Atlanta area flows to UGA (which is probably already the case for non-engineering majors), and metro Atlanta can deal with whatever Tech is. Metro will have more say, but at least the bigotry of the out-of-state staff, here to save us all, won't affect some kid being able to get a quality near-Tier 1 education. 

Exit "argument," made for debating purposes: I invite the admissions staff to show any peer-reviewed research that shows your best engineer and scientist is necessarily the one and the same as the best person, "holistically." Because traditionally, that just hasn't been the stereotype. 

Meaning this: I predict an eventual lessening in the general quality of the Tech graduate, as an engineer, because the school is admitting people good at putting applications together, versus people simply good at math and science by nature. They are training the future corporate engineering managers, not the future engineers. 

Eventually they will pay a price, because engineering is, yes, about being able to make the case if you are right (Challenger disaster being the classic example where the engineers couldn't make their case), but it is at the end of the day about being able to understand natural phenomena and harness them for the use of man, not negotiate the social phenomena. 

I deal with a contractor who is very good at negotiating the DC scene. Doesn't mean the contractor delivers on time, on schedule. Eventually, when the social outweighs the technical/practical, you'll start declining. 

Conversely, Tech could become even more elite/MIT-like, and forget the practical part. To which I will remind them, as always--"Engineers put planes on flight lines, PhDs put unread papers on library shelves."

Your thoughts on this issue, which is complicated, emotional, and, for disappointed families in Georgia whose kids were not admitted, personal.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
X