Which college you go to matters far less than you think

We thought our students and parent community were excessively freaked out about college admissions, but when we read Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be we realized that we are Johnny-come-lately amateurs.  In certain circles in New York City, the college admissions stress begins in preschool because there are certain elite preschools, kindergartens and “gifted” programs that accept only a few percent of their applicants (2.4% in one case).  There is an application process complete with interviews, consultants and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing to decide which four year old goes to which preschool.  Everybody believes that certain preschools lead to acceptance, 14 years later, at certain elite colleges.  At least they’re not going to take a chance on being wrong about that.  Some of these preschool/kindergarten programs cost $40,000 per year.  Later on, they spend tens of thousands of dollars per kid for private consultants, tutoring, SAT preparation and “application boot camps” in addition to the private school tuition they’re paying.  At last count, there was something like 14,000 private college admission consultants (unaffiliated with any high school) working in the United States.  This is also true for applicants from overseas.  American college admissions officers don’t (for example) read Chinese, so applicants from China have to translate and interpret their transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation and essays.  These application packages are pretty much made to order by well-paid consultants.  So if you’re ordinary middle class and affluent suburbanites like us, forget it.  You’re hopelessly outclassed already.  It’s amazing any of our kids ever get in anywhere.

All we do in our community is hire the occasional college admissions consultant in the eleventh grade (far too late!) and take SAT prep classes.  And take lots of AP classes.  And stress out about it a lot.  Our students tell us things like “I don’t really like it, but I have to get good grades to get into a good college.  You have to go to a good college if you want a good job.  I need a good job to make enough money, so I can live well.  My parents expect it of me and besides, I expect it of myself.”  We ask them how they like their lifestyle now. “Not very much… too much homework, stress, and competition. I don’t get enough sleep, and I worry too much.”  We have to tell them that unless they change their way it’s not going to get any better as they get older.  These are the teenagers that the Marin county psychologist Madeline Levine calls “empty”, or “missing something inside.” They are missing a sense of self. They are externally motivated (by parents, grades, recognition) and have very little internal motivation.

Parents talk to us about college admissions and a few seem to believe that the only function of four years of high school is to sort out who goes to which college.  Some get obsessed.  A flyer on a bulletin board outside our grocery store says “The PSAT is Getting Harder!” and offers tutoring services.  The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is an optional test taken by tenth and eleventh graders to determine eligibility for National Merit Scholarships.  Nothing else is at stake; most students take it just to practice for the SAT.  Why should it matter if it “gets harder?”  This isn’t a test you pass or fail; it ranks your test-taking performance against your peers.  If it’s harder for you, it is harder for everyone else also.  Yet – you guessed it – most of the stubs fringing the bottom of the flyer are torn off.  We don’t think it was the teenagers who took them home.  The anxiety over college admissions is also spilling over into middle schools and elementary schools.  Some universities now offer campus tours and on-campus information sessions for K-8 school groups.

William Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard College, has famously called the people he admits “dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp.”  Most college admissions officers must think this; most don’t write it on their school’s web site.  This makes us wonder, because other college admissions officers understand as well as Mr. Fitzsimmons does that when they admit students based mostly on their accomplishments and test scores they will get the most status-obsessed ones – the ones who will do anything to get ahead.  Everyone else has been weeded out by a ruthless Darwinian procedure.  Are these really the students they most want?  Are these really the students the professors most want to teach?  Could they look more at character, grit, creativity, quirkiness, socioeconomic diversity, political diversity, cognitive diversity, or altruism?  Or if there is no good way to assess these qualities, why not just select qualified students by lottery?  We want our own students to be self-directed, confident and optimistic about the future.  How can this be if they’re motivated mostly by anxiety?

There are over 2000 colleges and universities in this country.  (Four thousand if you count community colleges.)  Most of these colleges accept almost everyone.  A few hundred are moderately hard to get into, and a few dozen are extremely difficult.  Nationwide about 70% of all applications to all colleges result in acceptance.  That means if you apply to several colleges including one that’s easy to get into, your odds of going somewhere appropriate for you are basically 100%.  No matter who you are there are places in college available to you.  The quality of teaching you find at the competitive colleges is no better than the teaching you find at the others.  Indeed, nobody claims that it is.  The professors at large and prestigious universities are researchers first, and their indifference to undergraduate teaching is well known.  Many lesser known colleges have brilliant and inspiring professors.  You learn more in four years at a good high school than you do in four years of college anyway.  If you don’t believe this, try a simple test: have conversations with an 8th grader, a 12th grader, and a college senior and see which two sound more alike.

But doesn’t going to a prestigious college lead to more prestigious and higher paying careers?
It actually does not!  A famous controlled study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale of the Mellon Foundation showed that whether you attend a very selective college or an ordinary one has no effect on future earnings.  They did this by examining the careers of young adults who were accepted by Ivy-League universities but attended less prestigious colleges instead*.  Yes, such people exist and yes, those people did just as well financially as their Ivy-League counterparts.  (Mr. Bruni is one; he was admitted into Yale but attended the University of North Carolina instead.  He was not part of this study.)  So, while it’s true that Ivy League, Stanford and MIT graduates earn more money than average college graduates, it doesn’t look as if the universities themselves do much to cause this.  If you have what it takes to get accepted by an Ivy League school (or even to apply to one) but go to the local state university instead, you do just as well.  The students and applicants at these elite colleges are already much wealthier than average – remember the correlation between SAT scores and family wealth?  So these universities don’t so much help you get ahead financially as they help you preserve the advantages your family already has.

Mr. Bruni’s book makes an overwhelming case that it is the student that makes success happen, not the college.  He tells many stories about young adults who don’t get into their top choices and go on to thrive and succeed at the schools they do attend.  There are lists of studies of top leaders in business, politics, science and journalism that show that, however you sample it, most very successful people went to non-elite colleges.  We especially like the story he tells about how the novelist John Green (author of The Fault in Our Stars) wasn’t allowed into an advanced fiction writing class at Kenyon College because sixteen students wanted in and there was only room for twelve.  At the time, he wasn’t even in the top dozen creative writing students at Kenyon!

We don’t need to go over the same ground as Mr. Bruni, but we can offer an example from our local area:  San Jose State University counts among its alumni Gordon Moore (founder of Intel), Ed Oates (founder of Oracle), Ray Dolby (inventor), Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil and Terry Donahue (football coaches), Patty Sheehan (golfer), Amy Tan (novelist), Peter Uberroth (baseball commissioner and Olympics organizer) Ben Nighthorse Campbell (U.S. Senator), Michael Deaver (Deputy White House Chief of Staff),  Mike Honda (Congressman), Lou Henry Hoover (First Lady of the United States), Lyn Nofziger (White House advisor), Ed Rollins (Ronald Reagan’s campaign director) and Dian Fossey (scientist.)  Probably every other university with the word “State” in its name can produce a similar list of household names.

Let’s look at another example- the incredibly prestigious MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowships.  Since rich private research institutions such as Ivy League universities, Stanford and MIT get their pick of the nation’s young talent, you might think that most MacArthur fellows went to these places.  In fact, between 1981 and 2014 only a third of the 918 MacArthur Fellows went to any private research university for their undergraduate education.  A quarter went to state universities.  A tenth have no college degree at all.  MacArthur fellows are a really diverse bunch – almost a hundred attended “special mission” institutions such as women’s colleges, historically black colleges or religious institutions.  Ten percent attended college outside of the United States.  The only category of college that really stands out is small liberal arts colleges – they only enroll 2% of American college students but they produced 14% of the MacArthur Fellows.  So the Ivies have no monopoly on creative accomplishment.

As an anecdotal example, let’s compare me to my wife’s cousin, Commander James L. Christie, U. S. Navy.  Both men are the same age.  Both majored in chemistry in college.  Both earn six figure incomes working for public-sector institutions.  I attended the University of Chicago, one of the world’s top universities on most lists.  Christie attended the California State University at Chico, which was a notorious party school at the time.  He worked hard though, and joined the ROTC.  I tell over a hundred ninth and tenth graders what to do.  Christie has commanded a thousand men and women in uniform at a submarine base.  I supervise a budget of several thousand dollars.  We shudder to think about how much money Christie spends fixing the submarines.  Who is more successful?

Why has getting into an elite college become so hard?  When I entered the University of Chicago in 1981, that institution accepted about half of its applicants.  I did not earn straight-A’s in high school and never took an AP class.  I was not in the highest math track at my school.  I had strong SAT scores but wrote a lackluster essay.  Several trends would make this impossible today.  The number of slots at elite colleges hasn’t gone up very much, while the number of people who want them has risen hugely.  International students were rare then at the undergraduate level but today thousands of very qualified young people apply from places like China, Korea, India, and Arab countries.  For all their faults, American (and British and Canadian) universities are still considered the best by the rest of world.  Air travel and technology has made it easier to contemplate attending universities far from home, and technology like the Common Application has made it easier to apply to lots of schools with a minimum of effort.  I applied to six colleges but double-digit lists of colleges are the norm now.  (Any college counselor not paid by the hour will tell you that applying to dozens of colleges won’t help.)  It’s also true that elite universities give special consideration to certain groups of applicants.  “Legacies” are applicants who have a family member, often a parent, who already attended.  At Ivy League universities over 10% of each entering freshman class are legacy students.  All universities like to win at sports, so if a coach wants you he or she calls the admissions office and puts in a good word for you.  That uses up even more slots.  The children and grandchildren of celebrities are rarely turned away.  Faculty children and applicants from underrepresented ethnic minorities get special consideration.  All these add up; about half the spots at a place like Harvard or Yale are given to one of these privileged groups of applicants.  That’s not to say they’re undeserving or unqualified; just that if you’re not a member of one of these groups it’s even harder for you.

Bruni documents the pernicious effect of the U.S. News & World Report rankings on college admissions.  For those readers who have lived in a cave since 1980, U.S. News & World Report was a magazine sort of like Time and Newsweek.  It started ranking colleges.  College administrators scoffed at the accuracy and significance of the rankings, but never failed to crow about it if their institution did better than expected by climbing a few steps in the rankings.  Before U.S. News & World Report most students attended college close to home.  It wasn’t necessary or possible to compare institutions across time zones.  The rankings allowed everyone to do that, even if they are based on inappropriate data.  And what are they based on, you may ask?  Part of the ranking reflects how strong the applicants are.  For instance, the applicants’ SAT scores account for a little less than 10% of the ranking.  Acceptance rate is very important.  The more students you say “no” to the higher you climb in the rankings.  As a result, college admissions offices today aren’t there so much to find next year’s freshman class as they are to drum up as many applicants as possible, so they can reject as many as possible.  How much money the college spends per student also matters (the more the better), negating any incentive colleges may otherwise have to cut costs.  “Reputation” is a big component of the rankings.  This means that U.S. News & World Report asks college administrators to judge the prestige of other colleges.  These survey subjects have all read the rankings for years, so their answers reflect the influence U.S. News & World Report has on its own research outcomes.  What U.S. News & World Report doesn’t consider is the quality of instruction or any assessment of student learning.  They have no easy way to measure it.  Today the magazine no longer exists.  U.S. News & World Report is mostly a college rating agency.

Bruni’s book makes us question whether you should want to attend an elite college at all, even if you can get into one.  He thoroughly describes the disadvantages of attending an Ivy League school.  These include the pressure for conformity, for script-following.  It doesn’t go away once you’re admitted.  Although entering freshmen at Ivy League universities express interests in a wide variety of fields, a really disproportionate number of them take jobs in finance or management consulting four years later.  Politics, teaching, science, medicine, law, academia, the arts, the clergy, the military – these all get short shrift.  This is because when Wall Street recruiters come to campus these very ambitious young adults perceive a job on Wall Street to be their next big competitive challenge.  It’s something they can apply for and they’re good at applying for things.  They don’t necessarily ask themselves how much they want to work in finance, or if they have any special skills to bring to it (apparently none are needed).  It’s enough that other people want to do it, that it’s prestigious, that it’s well compensated.  Working on Wall Street doesn’t sound so bad, you say?  But what if that really isn’t what you’re most suited for?  Remember, these are people whose basic needs and status needs have all been met.  They should be working on self-actualization.  Another disadvantage is the sense of entitlement you get.  You start to feel that you deserve more than others because of your success in the college admissions game.  You and the people around you are so isolated from the rest of the real world that the feeling will make sense.  It is exacerbated by the institution not allowing you to fail.  (Very few grades at Ivy League schools are below a B and very few students drop out.)  The bubble will pop when you graduate and rejoin the real world, where nobody else feels they owe you anything just because you went to Princeton.  Conversely, many Ivy League students feel self-doubt and insecurity.  No matter who you are, someone at an Ivy League school will look better than you.  Bruni describes how, years later, many Cornell students feel bad that they didn’t get into Harvard or Yale.  Going to a less elite college allows an academically accomplished student to feel like a big deal.

In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants Malcolm Gladwell examines the phenomenon of math and science majors at the Ivies who drop out of these fields at the first sign of trouble.  (For these students, a “B” grade is a sign of trouble.)  Accustomed to excelling in high school, they encounter adversity for the first time in their lives and meet students who are better at science than they are in their freshman classes.  You might think that these smart and hardworking people would double down and try really hard to understand the material, or just accept that they can’t always be perfect.  The statistics tell a different story.  Most drop math and science for subjects in which it’s easier to earn an “A”.  Gladwell compares the least capable science students at Harvard to the all-stars at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York that’s easy to get into.  These two groups have approximately equal abilities, as measured by high school test scores.  They are mastering the same material, more or less to the same degree of rigor.  Yet the Harvard students drop out of math and science programs while the Hartwick students stay put.  Who is better off?  You might argue that the Harvard science drop-outs can always fall back on jobs in investment banking and management consulting, because that’s what they do.  But the Hartwick science majors go on into careers in science, which is intrinsically satisfying and offers opportunities for authentic engagement that other fields don’t.  Gladwell believes that if you’re drawn towards math, science, engineering or technology, you are better off attending a less competitive college where you can learn the material and feel successful while you do it.

So why has college admissions become the tail that wags the high school dog?  To us it seems to be about parental insecurity, bragging rights, and a mistaken belief that prestigious colleges do in fact lead to prestigious jobs; but mostly the first two.  If money were really the issue there would be a much bigger focus on choosing your major than on choosing your college.  Some majors – again, notably those in science, technology, engineering and math – really do lead to significantly higher incomes.  The starting salaries of this year’s crop of engineering and science majors were about $20,000 higher than the starting salaries of humanities and education majors.  This makes a big difference to a young adult just starting out in life.  It can mean the difference between paying off your loans or starting to save money or buying a house, and postponing these things.  This difference completely wipes out the advantage that graduating from an elite college brings, at least for starting salaries – in other words, you can major in engineering or computer science at X State University and earn just as much in your first year out of college as a humanities major at Elite Ivy College.  Going to graduate school also matters a lot to future earnings.  No, it’s about status and we don’t mean the status that may come four or five or ten years down the road after the student graduates from college.  It’s the right-now status you get when you say “I got into ___!”  (Some parents actually say “We got into ___!”)  As high school teachers and counselors, we don’t ourselves feel much empathy for that need.  But we can tell you that full, authentic engagement is really the most important determinant of success, happiness and lasting status.  You have to believe 100% in what you’re doing.  If you don’t you’ll be unhappy and you’ll probably get out-competed in the end anyway by people who do.

The things we do for status feel important to us at the time but they can look silly when viewed from a distance.  In the last days of Easter Island’s ancient society kinship groups vied with each other to put up ever-larger stone statues of important ancestors.  One day it all fell apart; apparently there was a bloody revolution and several hundred half-finished statues were left forever in quarries and by the side of the roads.  The whole island was denuded of vegetation because log rollers and bark ropes were needed to transport the statues.  Do any of us feel today that it really was that important to build taller and taller statues?  During the Dutch Tulip Mania in the 1600’s some individual tulip bulbs sold for more money than a nice townhouse in Amsterdam.  Anyone can see how irrational that is, except for the speculators caught up in it.  Tulips are nice – they’re just not that nice.  Today you can take a semester-long course at College of Marin for less than $200.  My wife did that recently.  It was a field botany class; it involved weekly labs, lectures, exams, and lots of weekend field trips.  It was taught by a regular faculty member with a PhD who really knew his stuff.  She was pleased with her experience and compared it favorably to botany courses she had taken at Cornell.  The tuition charge there for the same course is over $6000.

So we tell our parent community to chill out about colleges.  We have advice for teenagers also:  Your parents love you no matter what, so resist the well-meant pressure from the adults in your life to take on more than you can handle.  You will be most successful at what you find most engaging.  The more you care about grades and getting into colleges, the less you will care about other valuable things.  An “A” is never an entitlement.  Don’t sign up for advanced placement classes unless you’re actually going to do the work.  Pursue your own fun interests even if they don’t seem to be relevant to college admissions or a career.  Try to keep alive that love of learning new things that you had when you were little.

* In science, this is an excellent example of a control group – a group of test subjects with the most important thing left out.  Adults who applied to Ivy League schools and got into them but didn’t go are like Ivy League grads in every way, except for their lack of Ivy-league educations.  In fact, even getting in wasn’t very important.  Just applying to an Ivy League school was very strongly correlated with future earnings.

Author | Teacher | Scientist