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Highly selective colleges from the East and West coasts often are conspicuous by their absence from college fairs in South Dakota such as this one. IMAGE: Dakota Association for College Admission Counseling

Varsity Blue Skies: How High Plains residents escape Ivy League admissions pressure

Editor’s note: I grew up in Rhode Island, and while I miss some elements of life on the East Coast, one thing that I do not miss at all is the pressure on teens to get into selective colleges. 

That pressure is enormous in the East Coast’s middle- and upper-class suburbs, and it twists and squeezes families on the West Coast as well, as the recent “Varsity Blues” scandal – which is sending celebrity and other millionaire parents to jail for admissions fraud – shows.

In contrast, that pressure in North Dakota and South Dakota is almost completely, and blissfully, absent.


That’s the question I posed to Art Hagg, counseling director at O’Gorman High School, a Catholic high school in Sioux Falls, S.D.

A quick note about O’Gorman:

Of the 169 members of O’Gorman High School’s Class of 2017, 31 scored a 30 or higher on the ACT. That means those 31 students scored in the top 6 percent on the nationwide test.

Moreover, 49 students had a weighted or unweighted GPA of 4.0. Some good share of those A’s were earned in the 19 Advanced Placement classes that O’Gorman offers.

Last but not least, O’Gorman has, since 1968, won more state athletic championships than any other high school in South Dakota – despite the fact that it’s one of the smallest high schools in the state’s AA or highest division.

Clearly, high numbers of O’Gorman students could, if they chose, compete for admission to Harvard, Yale or any other highly selective college in America.

If they chose. But only a few choose to do so, Hagg notes below. 

Moreover, O’Gorman is not alone in this, as shown by the fact that so few students from the Dakotas apply to Ivy League schools, those schools generally give those applicants a leg up (in the name of “geographic diversity”) in the admissions process.

Here’s Hagg, who’s retiring this year after counseling students for 39 years (28 of them at O’Gorman), on the Midwestern culture that has – so far, at least – kept this particular pressure of modern American life to a minimum.

– Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business

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Q. What’s your sense of the pressure that O’Gorman High School Students may or may not feel to get into selective schools?

Hagg:  We do have some of that pressure. For example, at O'Gorman, we have 90 percent of our students going on to four-year colleges. So when you have that percentage, you're going to have a percentage up toward the top – say, 5 percent to 8 percent of the class – who may be considering highly selective schools, whether it’s the Ivies or, more commonly around here, Northwestern or Notre Dame.  

We have a student going to the Air Force Academy, for example. We have a student going to Notre Dame, a student going to Marquette, a student going to Berklee College of Music in Boston. 

And because we're a Catholic high school, we have that inherent interest in other Catholic colleges in addition to Notre Dame. Especially those colleges that are in the region: so, for example, we have three students going up to the University of Mary in Bismarck, we have students going to colleges such as St. Thomas, St. Benedict’s and St. John’s, we have students going to Creighton.

But for the majority of our students, their parents likely went to a state school or a local private school, and those parents feel they had a good education and are doing well in their careers.

So I don't think the majority of our students feel that pressure.

Q. Where else are the students going after graduation?

Hagg: This year, for example, roughly half of our students will be staying in state. The highest percentage will go to the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, Augustana University and other in-state schools. And then we’ll get the nine or 10 students who’ll go to the technical schools in the state.

After that, the next highest percentage will be going to Nebraska and Minnesota schools.

Q. Clearly, many O’Gorman students could take their high ACT scores, GPAs and extracurricular activities to schools such as those that drove “Varsity Blues” parents to distraction. What keeps the majority of those students in the region? 

Hagg:  Part of it is distance. I think that pressure gets more intense the closer you live to those types of schools, most of which are on the East and West coasts, as you know.

Part of it is the fact that young people stay because these days, they really can get a lot of bang for their buck. For example, in the past 15 years, South Dakota has made a much greater effort through scholarships and the like to keep our young talent in the state.

Part of it is the fact that their parents have done very well in their lives after graduating from local schools. In other words, I think a lot of our students realize that they don't have to go to a highly selective school in order to be successful.

And I also think the Midwest, the Dakotas – well, I don't know if it's because we’re a little more down-to-earth, a little more grounded or what have you. But the net result of all of this is that a majority of our students just don't think in terms of the Ivies. 

Q. Tell us about the efforts that South Dakota has made.

Hagg: For example, there’s the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship, in which students who meet certain criteria with their coursework, GPAs and ACT scores can get up to $6,500 over four years for our colleges in South Dakota.

The Dakota Corps Scholarship is a full-tuition scholarship for students who agree to stay in the state and work in “critical need” fields, such as engineering, nursing, information technology, accounting and some key fields in teaching.

The Build Dakota Scholarship gives tech school students a full ride in return for their agreeing to stay in the state and work in their field.

I have to compliment our schools and state government in South Dakota. They’re putting a lot more money into their scholarship programs to entice these students to stay. 

Q. And the programs work?

Hagg: Absolutely. I had a young lady who was accepted at Pepperdine University in California, a school that accepts only one out of three applicants. But the University of South Dakota offered her a Presidential Alumni Scholarship, which fully pays for tuition and fees.

So she went to USD and had a great career. And, she didn't incur debt like she would have elsewhere, and she was closer to home – because if she’d gone to California, she would have been home only two or three times the whole year.

This year, our students at O'Gorman had more than $13 million worth of scholarship offers, and that kind of financial incentive can really help them make the decision as to where they want to go.  

Q. To the best of my knowledge, there are no private college-admissions coaches in the Dakotas, though there are a number around the Twin Cities. Has that been your experience, too?

Hagg: Yes, although I do know of a few parents who’ve used the services of those coaches in the Twin Cities. One mom said to me, “Mr. Hagg, you're retiring. Maybe you should put out your shingle and do this college advising!” There's definitely a market in Sioux Falls, she suggested.

Q. Does this mean times are changing?

Hagg: A little, and in part, that might be because of because of the competition between our hospitals in Sioux Falls: Sanford and Avera. That’s a pretty competitive environment, and it has brought doctors and executives from all over the world, including some who were trained in Ivy League and similar schools. 

So, they may be bringing a little bit of that intensity to the Midwest.

But again, the numbers remain small. Even at O'Gorman here in 2019, of the 200 students in our graduating class, we had maybe eight or nine or 10 who actually applied to highly selective schools.

I think there is that Midwestern grounded feeling that still in this area. Years ago, before I came to O’Gorman, I worked in a couple of schools in small towns. And rarely would any of those students even go out of state. It would be maybe one kid a year who’d go out of state.

Q. If I worked at Sanford or Avera, I’d use that groundedness as a recruiting tool. I think a lot of Ivy League grads on the coasts would love to escape that intense admissions pressure, while also knowing that if their youngster happened to aspire to the Ivy League, he or she could be a very competitive applicant from here. 

Hagg: I think you’re right. And as you mentioned, being a South Dakotan actually is a competitive advantage at many of those schools. I was invited out to the University of Pennsylvania years ago; the admissions director was talking to us and said, “You know, South Dakota has the highest acceptance rate in the nation. We had three applicants, and we accepted two of them.”

It's tougher for a kid from Philadelphia to get into Penn than it is for someone from South Dakota.