Malia Obama’s College Pick: Ivies, Liberal Arts or Public University?
By NICHOLAS FANDOSOCT. 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — President Obama recently had some fatherly counsel for his 17-year-old daughter, Malia, even as he acknowledged that she might not listen to him.
“One piece of advice that I’ve given her is not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college,” Mr. Obama told a group that included high school students in Des Moines last month. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”
His second piece of advice, the president said as the room broke into laughter, “is keep your grades up until you get in, and after that, make sure you pass.”
It is college application season in America, including at the White House, where Malia Obama, a senior at the elite Sidwell Friends School in Washington, is in the middle of the pressure-filled process of writing personal essays, asking for teacher recommendations and narrowing her choices.
Reports from college newspapers and conversations with campus tour guides indicate that Malia, perhaps the nation’s most eligible 2016 college applicant, is winnowing a list of Ivy League schools, liberal arts colleges and at least one top-ranked public university. Her current grades and SAT scores are not publicly known — the first lady’s office declined to comment for this article — but Mr. Obama, for one, told the students in Des Moines that his daughter was a “hard worker” and that he did not expect her to “start feeling a little slack” in her senior year.
(What is known is that in 2009, when Malia was all of 11, Mr. Obama announced to the world that she had gotten a 73 on a science test. “So she came home, and she was depressed,” the president said during a speech in Madison, Wis. But Malia, he said, studied hard and soon earned 95 on another test.)
So far, Malia has toured six of the eight Ivies — Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale — as well as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She has also visited New York University, Tufts, Barnard and Wesleyan.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama and his large entourage have not tagged along. On some trips, even Michelle Obama has stayed behind, letting family friends show her daughter around. Students have still angled for selfies and Snapchats when they recognized Malia, but a low-key search process is most likely what the White House is aiming for, said Lisa Caputo, the press secretary to Hillary Rodham Clinton when the first lady’s daughter, Chelsea (Stanford ’01), was looking for colleges in the 1990s.
“You want to have as informed a visit as possible, just like anyone else who is a college applicant,” Ms. Caputo said. “You want to let them get a feel — what’s the vibe on campus — without being followed by a whole swarm of people.”
The colleges have happily cooperated. At Columbia, the president’s alma mater, Malia was shown around by Zila Reyes Acosta-Grimes, a third-year law school student serving in the University Senate, whose father is a prominent New York jurist. At Yale, the college’s head student tour guide, Jeremy Hutton — once a competitor in the Mr. Yale pageant — showed off the Gothic campus. At Harvard, Malia toured the Yard with Taylor Nides, a fellow senior from Sidwell; Ms. Nides is the daughter of Thomas R. Nides, a former deputy secretary of state under Mrs. Clinton, and Virginia Moseley, the deputy Washington bureau chief at CNN.
Malia and Taylor followed their tour with a lunch off campus with Olivia Moseley, a Harvard senior who is the niece of Ms. Moseley and Mr. Nides.
Many schools Malia has visited have a claim on her potential interests. Stanford, where Chelsea Clinton was an undergraduate while her parents finished their time in the White House, offers a chance to spend four years away from the East Coast under the radar. N.Y.U. boasts the best film program. Princeton, Mrs. Obama’s alma mater, continues to have close ties to her family. (The first lady’s niece, Leslie Robinson, plays on the Princeton women’s basketball team.)
And then there is Harvard, where her parents went to law school. There, Malia would be the latest in a long line of presidents’ children — multiple Roosevelts, many Adamses, a Kennedy, a Lincoln and a Bush (the business school).
Sidwell, like many top private schools, assigns each of its students a college admissions counselor and helps guide them through this series of hoops familiar to any college applicant. Strong extracurricular activities are important, and Malia has exotic ones.
This past summer, she had a brief internship in New York City on the HBO series “Girls,” and in the summer of 2014 she was a production assistant on CBS’s “Extant,” a series produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Halle Berry.
Add to that a cosmopolitan home life — Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping of China were recent guests — and you have a very competitive candidate.
“Without question, the places and people she has been exposed to would be fodder for a more curious mind and wider personal knowledge than her peers — and that can’t help but be apparent in her college entrance applications and interviews,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian of presidential families at the National First Ladies’ Library.
At this point, few know Malia’s college preferences, or even if she is applying to all of the schools she has visited. But the paucity of information has done little to tamp down speculation. When Malia was spotted in August 2014 wearing a Stanford T-shirt on a bike ride in Martha’s Vineyard, bloggers declared the contest all but done. Others have pointed out that the summer internship in New York may have tipped Malia’s hand.
But as far as the president is concerned, what matters is what his older daughter makes of her education.
As he told the students in Des Moines, offering what he said was a third piece of advice to Malia: “Don’t go to college just to duplicate the same experience you had in high school. Don’t make your decision based on, well, where are all my friends going so that I can do the exact same things with the exact same friends that I did in high school. The whole point is for you to push yourself out of your comfort level, meet people you haven’t met before, take classes that you hadn’t thought of before.”
“Stretch yourself,” the president added. “Because this is the time to do it, when you’re young.”