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Dr. Grauer's Column - Top Tier

High school seniors around the country are in the process of submitting college applications, leading to important decisions about which colleges should they apply to for admission. One of the deciding factors can be whether the school is rated in the "top tier". Does attending a top-rated school lead to happiness for every student?

Top Tier

This is the most recent version of an annual theme Dr. Grauer has addressed with teachers and students for many years. Just a day after this address was given to students in their advisory groups, this announcement came out: Harvard and Yale law schools are withdrawing from the U.S. News rankings, in perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the school ratings industry. In small, mentored groups, Grauer students engaged in conversations about this topic. Read on to see what’s so extraordinary.

Grauer Assistant Principal Alicia Tembi has asked me to share some thoughts about grade point averages and ranks. So, let’s take the case of one of the top educators in our region. As a straight-A senior in high school, she had committed to the “top tier” University of Chicago, but late in the game she changed to DePauw, a small Indiana college, instead. Why? Her family needed her close to home. Depauw, a fine small school in its own right, subsequently prepared her for entry into medical school. Then, on a visit to California, an energetic, unpredictable educator talked her into becoming a teacher. Today she is among the most respected educators that everyone reading this will ever know, and she has impacted hundreds of young lives, profoundly. “Top tier” for this person, who we call Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, took on a new meaning:  preparing for an engaged, productive, happy, impactful life—her way, as The Grauer School's Principal.

Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, The Grauer School's Principal, receiving flowers on her birthday from Dr. Stuart Grauer - November 14, 2022

Top tier. I know what you are thinking: Ivy League, plus maybe Stanford and a few others like MIT, Johns Hopkins, and University of Chicago. Those appear to be top tier in the minds of some people for a particular reason. The magazine, US News & World Report, created an algorithm which keeps pointing to them. What’s in the algorithm that computes top tier? Here it is: graduation rate, first-year retention rate, Pell grant rate, class size, pay, standardized test scores, high school rank, financial aid, and graduate debt. 

Here’s my question:  What about students? There is almost no reference to students in that top tier ranking system. No wonder some college presidents call the U.S. News rankings “meaningless.”

Guess what, there are rankings all over the place. Princeton Review has a ranking algorithm which produces “top ranked” colleges. So does Forbes. So does Kiplinger’s. So many top tiers. What’s the real one?

Niche has a ranking of colleges with the “best student life.” Only one of the US News colleges is in their top 10. College Choice has a list of top tier colleges, based upon “student happiness.” You know how many US News top ten colleges are on that one? Zero.

What is this whole top tier thing, anyway? What are we applying for, layer cake?

Grauer Senior Sage S. '23 surfing for The Grauer School's team in a competition - November 19, 2022

No matter what you want to rank, there are colleges at the top of it. Best food. Best art. Best jobs. Nicest kids. Best parties.

There are 4000 colleges in the country, and I know what you are wondering. Which ones are the real top of them? Here is the secret: the top tier consists of the place where you are engaged, happy, healthy, and in your element. If you are in that place where you thrive, you belong, you feel like your best self, then you have found your top tier—and you often don’t need A grades to get into that tier either. 

And IF…

If you are stressed out regularly or don’t feel connected: that is a waste of your A’s. If you consistently lose sleep, the A’s aren’t worth it, even if the school’s name and rank are impressive. How many childhoods do you get?

A 2021 Boston University study found that 83% of kids said their search for A grades was hurting their mental health. Why not get an A in peace of mind and health? Major in inspiration.

Anxiety is not even an “epidemic” anymore: now it’s a “national emergency.” Burnout keeps increasing. Burnout is identifiable by social disconnection, feeling too alone, mental or physical exhaustion, and chronic stress. If you feel this in high school, you’ll probably feel it in college, maybe even more. 

Princeton Review created a whole new top tier: 10 Most Loved Colleges. Do you know how many of them are on the US News list? You know it. None.

The Grauer School's High School Robotics team competing in their first meet of the season - November 20, 2022

I must be a bad influence because I frequently tell our seniors to choose their backup colleges rather than their first choices. True! At those colleges, supposedly easier to get in to, students often find more leadership opportunities, have a better chance of knowing their professors, and experience less pressure. You can be more creative and well-rounded when you’re not stressed out. 

Here’s a little secret. At Grauer, I appreciate applications for admissions from well-rounded B students, every bit as much as from A students. I appreciate the work ethic of many A students, but B students have a special place in my heart. They make tradeoffs. They don’t have anyone to impress. They often seem freer to choose their own joyful activities and follow their personal passions. That makes them courageous. Research shows they are less anxious and more entrepreneurial. They often think outside the box. They define themselves rather than being defined by their GPA or college sweatshirt. If you have B’s, you can be in my top tier and I guarantee you can get into a college of good fit. It’s true, and by the time you’ve been working with teens for around 50 years, it’s even obvious: you do not need grades to get into college or have a happy or rich life. 

Grauer Senior Andi W. '23 competing in a Sweet Potato Cookoff competition, featuring sweet potatoes grown in The Grauer School's garden - November 22, 2022

There are a variety of great reasons to go for an A in any given class. Giving up joy and health is rarely among those reasons. The Grauer School understands that students are healthiest and happiest when pursuing – you know the term - their intrinsic motivations. Later on, you will find that your own top tier college is the one where you belong and feel free to find your own, true purposes, and maybe you can even have a career where you impact generations of kids, just like The Grauer School's own Principal.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer Senior Sage S. '23 surfing for The Grauer School's team in a competition - November 19, 2022

The Grauer School's High School Robotics team competing in their first meet of the season - November 20, 2022

Grauer Senior Andi W. '23 competing in a Sweet Potato Cookoff competition, featuring sweet potatoes grown in The Grauer School's garden - November 22, 2022

Dana Abplanalp-Diggs, The Grauer School's Principal, receiving flowers on her birthday from Dr. Stuart Grauer - November 14, 2022

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer


Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

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Dr. Grauer's Column: Archive of Past Columns

Dr. Grauer's Column - Grauer Forest School

One of the founding principles of The Grauer School is the importance of expeditionary learning, where our students learn important lessons from the natural world. More parents and educators who are now recognizing the value of outdoor education and the essential intelligence it imparts upon our children.

Dr. Grauer's Column - The Wisdom of Acknowledgement

This week's column features guest columnist Trevor Olson, High School Dean at The Grauer School. Trevor shares the wisdom he learned from Jim, a 79-year-old father and grandfather, about the importance of acknowledgment and respect for others.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Where Does Academic Pressure Come From?

The level of stress and anxiety that students feel has reached new heights, which impacts their happiness, purpose, focus, honesty, depression rates, and family dynamics. Where does their stress about academic pressure come from? The answer will surprise you.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Propinquity

Propinquity refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. The Grauer School's campus layout was intentionally set up to foster close propinquity. Our students interact with each other while walking through the central quad, swirling into small gatherings forming like eddies.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Bill Toone: "On the Wings of the Condor"

Conservationist Bill Toone's new memoir takes readers on wild rides through jungle treks, across canyon-spanning footbridges, and pole barges as he faced dangerous conditions and difficult politics of conservation. Dr. Grauer became friends with Bill Toone through The Grauer School's conservation work.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Artificial Intelligence And Our Future School

The rapidly expanding reach of AI has the potential to reshape many aspects of our lives, including how students create their academic work. Our teachers are grappling with how to know when students submit original work, an issue that will be magnified when AI bots become even more prevalent and their output becomes more difficult to detect.

Dr. Grauer's Column - Top Tier

High school seniors around the country are in the process of submitting college applications, leading to important decisions about which colleges should they apply to for admission. One of the deciding factors can be whether the school is rated in the "top tier". Does attending a top-rated school lead to happiness for every student?