WASHINGTON — So much for President Barack Obama’s fatherly advice on college.
Malia Obama, his older daughter and perhaps the nation’s most scrutinized and sought-after college applicant, has opted to attend Harvard University beginning in the fall of 2017, apparently disregarding her parents’ counsel that she need not choose a school with a big name and reputation.
The White House announced Malia’s choice, and her decision to take a gap year, on Sunday in a short statement from the first lady’s office, ending a season of speculation and surveillance on her college search process. She will become the latest in a long line of presidential children to attend the highly ranked Ivy League university.
The president suggested that, with his own daughter, he had weighed into the national angst over the increasing difficulty of getting into prestigious colleges, and said that he had made it clear there were other options for Malia, whom he has described as a capable, conscientious student who is ready to make her way independently in the world.
Last fall, the president said he had told his daughter “not to stress too much” about being accepted to a particular school, adding, “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.”
But in the end, Malia, 17, a daughter of two academic overachievers who both attended law school at Harvard, gravitated to an institution with not only a well-known name, but also plenty of experience hosting — and, to some degree, protecting — the children of some of the world’s most powerful people.
“The challenge of being a first child is to be normal within the context of all the scrutiny, and the challenge of everybody around them is to pretend like they’re normal and nothing’s out of the ordinary, which puts an enormous amount of stress on both the kid and the school,” said Gil Troy, a presidential historian at McGill University and the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” “The larger the institutional ego of the place, the more comfortable you can feel about the ability to cope with that and still have as close to a normal experience as possible.”
Harvard has long been a destination for the children of American and foreign leaders as well as those of celebrities and the ultrawealthy; its police force even has a three-person dignitary protection unit.
By deferring her start date until 2017, Malia may be maximizing her chances of having an ordinary freshman year, removed from the kind of news media attention and social media chatter her parents have worked to fend off for their daughters throughout Obama’s time in office. Malia had a taste of what life outside the White House might be like during a college tour last fall, when students posted photographs of her at a Brown University party.
“The degree to which every presidential child is half a millisecond away or a snapshot away or an Instagram away from scandal — it’s really kind of unfair,” Troy said. Once the parent has left office, he added, “the kids can get to at least some level of irrelevance that they absolutely cannot get when they’re still in the White House.”
The gap year will also allow the Obamas to avoid the type of spectacle that heralded the arrival of Chelsea Clinton for her freshman year at Stanford University in 1997. Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived on campus to drop her off with more than 200 reporters in tow. Dozens of Secret Service agents swarmed the scene, investigating parked vehicles and trying unsuccessfully to blend in.
When it came time for President George W. Bush’s twin daughters to attend college — Barbara at Yale University and Jenna at the University of Texas at Austin — things were much more low-key, recalled Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to Laura Bush.
“It was a different time, and there was not this constant front-and-center focus on where these girls were and what they were doing,” McBride said. With Malia, she added, “We’ve watched her grow up to a certain degree in the public eye, and people feel it’s their business to know.”
Both the White House and the top-tier colleges said to be Malia’s favorites had been barraged with questions in recent days about where she would choose to go. When she accompanied her father on a trip to California last month, speculation raged about whether Malia had tagged along to give Stanford University a final look before committing to go there. Conjecture only grew after a photograph surfaced late Saturday night of Malia wearing a crimson Harvard 2020 T-shirt.
Harvard said little on Sunday beyond confirming that Malia had accepted an offer of admission and had deferred enrollment for a year. But on campus, where students were studying Sunday for final exams, the news was greeted by many with rivalrous pride.
Harvard accepted just 5.2 percent of applicants this year, making it the second-most selective college in the country after Stanford. It is also one of the most expensive, costing more than $60,000 a year for tuition, room, board and other fees.
Sidwell Friends School, the elite Washington prep school where Malia is a senior, typically sends a handful of students to Harvard each year.
The list of presidential children who have attended Harvard includes John Quincy Adams and his son, John Adams II; Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert; the sons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt; Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy; and George W. Bush, who went to business school there.
Malia will quickly be put in touch with that history when she arrives on campus. Freshmen typically live in Harvard Yard, the university’s historic center, and take their meals in Annenberg Hall, a grand Victorian cafeteria lined with portraits and busts of early American leaders.
White House officials would not comment on Sunday on how Malia would spend the year until she enrolls. She has spent parts of the past two summers working on television sets in New York and Los Angeles, a path she could continue.
First, though, is graduation, which Sidwell holds in early June. Obama has made it very clear that the speaker at the ceremony will not be him.
“Malia is more than ready to leave, but I’m not ready for her to leave,” he said on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” in February. “And I was asked if I would speak at her graduation, and I said, ‘Absolutely not,’ because I’m going to be sitting there with dark glasses, sobbing.”