One-thousand, nine-hundred, forty-eight high school students were admitted into America’s most exclusive club Monday. They were selected from a pool of 27,462 students that included more than 2,500 students with perfect SAT critical reading scores, more than 3,300 with perfect SAT math scores and more than 3,300 students who were ranked first in their class. They were among the 7.1 percent of applicants admitted this year – another record-breakingly low percentage.

These 1,948 students got into Harvard College, the apple of America’s collegiate eye and the object of academia’s most notorious fetish. In other words, these students were picked from the freakishly smart of the freakishly smart who started working as hard as a 40-year-old business executive at the ripe age of 15.

Face it; you probably know how those 25,514 Harvard rejects are feeling right now. Whether you were a Harvard reject back in high school (like I was) or you just got denied from Harvard Law (like I probably will be), you are not alone here at the University of Michigan. Or maybe you aren’t a Harvard reject, but you fit into the broad category of Ivy League rejects – same difference.

The allure and mystique of Ivy League fascinates Americans, and admittedly I’m drawn in sometimes, too. It’s tough not to pay attention to these schools when it seems like they are constantly at the forefront of making higher education more affordable, defining and redefining who should receive financial aid and how much aid those people should receive. Plus, the Ivies are intricately tied to our beloved American Dream, functioning as training grounds for America’s elites.

But our infatuation with everything Ivy is giving us a misleading and dangerous snapshot of the American higher education system. While these schools still shape elite opinion of higher education, they are only a few of the 2,629 U.S. colleges and universities turning out the educated people this country needs. The more we overlook these schools, the more vulnerable we make them.

It’s tough to deny that our East Coast colleagues are important. When Harvard does something incredible like open up its $34.9 billion endowment to give financial aid to students whose parents earn up to $180,000 a year, that’s understandably a big deal. Since the school did that last December, dozens of universities have followed suit. State and federal legislators also took notice, starting to question why public universities with multibillion-dollar endowments aren’t being more generous.

But only the privileged few public universities could ever parallel what the Ivies are doing – and I’m not talking about public-Ivy powerhouses like the University of Michigan. The truly incredible examples, then, are the universities that stretch themselves thin to make an education as affordable as possible. Central Michigan University is one of those universities.

Beginning in fall 2005, CMU started the CMU Promise, a program that froze tuition for all incoming freshmen and transfer students. By freezing tuition, the program allowed students to calculate exactly how much they would owe during their time at the school. Insulated from sudden tuition hikes, students would be less likely to drop out for financial reasons or at least able to save accordingly.

Without a massive endowment to buoy the program and forced to rely on state funding, CMU had to cut the program in February. CMU only receives roughly $82 million in state appropriations, an amount that hasn’t increased much from the amount it received in the 1990s. While legislators and education elites in the United States are up in arms about universities that hoard their endowments, the limited federal and state funding that goes to the less endowed universities is taking its toll.

Yet, universities like CMU form the real backbone of America’s higher education system. When statistics detail that unemployment among college graduates is lower than among high school graduates – like the U.S. Census data detailing that adult workers with bachelor’s degrees earned 82 percent more in 2006 than adults with a high school diploma – CMU and Harvard graduates alike are included. But CMU has almost double the freshmen enrollment.

If we hope to achieve the educated workforce needed in this country, it won’t come from the 1,948 students who just got into Harvard. It will come from the hundreds of thousands of students at colleges in places like Mount Pleasant.

Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at gmgraca@umich.edu.

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