Monday, August 17, 2015

Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be, by Frank Bruni

It goes without saying, or at least it should go without saying, that you can be fulfilled, successful, and happy no matter where you go to college, or, for that matter, whether you go to college.  In Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni wants to convince the reader that in spite of the "college admissions mania," not getting into an elite school isn't the end of all hope.

With computer-based admissions applications, the increasing brand-awareness in our culture, and the sense (valid or not) of increasing divisions between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class, admissions to elite colleges has become more and more competitive.  High school students are driven to despair if they are denied admission to the elite school of their choice.  They miss out on opportunities available at regional colleges and large public universities because of a narrow focus on elite schools.  They allow their own self-perception to be determined by an admissions committee.

Bruni provides example after example of successful people who do no have an Ivy League diploma.  He discusses small colleges, as well as schools within large universities, where students are thriving.  And he provides general principals to guide aspiring students in their college choices.

As one student, who found success at a small college and then in her career, put it, "Everything in life--everything--is what you put into it.  It's not just Harvard, Stanford, or Yale that gets you a foot in the door.  There are so many options for how you can live your life and make a career for yourself."  Bruni wants students to recognize that truth.  A successful hedge fund executive who graduated from Texas A&M agreed that academic pedigree does not equal success: "If you are extremely smart but you're only partially engaged, you will be outperformed, and you should be, by people who are sufficiently smart but fully engaged."

Bruni's book is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that there are hundreds of excellent colleges and universities in the United States, and that a fit for the student is much more important than the prestige of the school.  However, as he points out, potential employers and professional schools often look to graduates of elite schools as having been pre-screened, in a sense, as exceptional.  This perception is hard to deny and there's not much that will change it.  Want to get into a great medical school?  Will the medical school look more favorably on a top student from Kansas State or on a top student from Harvard?  Will a recruiter for a major consulting firm prefer a graduate of Central Florida or Columbia?  Fair or not, prestigious degrees can open doors.

Bruni is right, but his title may be too strong.  Many college graduates would say "Where you go is definitely part of who you'll be."  I have encouraged my son, a junior in high school who wants to go to Columbia, to consider two things: The kind of people he wants to be around, and the kind of values he wants to establish in his life.  Stereotypical or not, many students at elite schools are themselves products of elite prep schools and come from wealthy families.  Those universities often don't reflect a cross-section of class and culture the way a state school or regional college typically does.  Also, the elitism that marks many elite students has an impact on students and culture at those schools.  (E.g., the students at an Ivy League school chanting "safety school" at a football game against their less-elite opponent.)

I would have liked to see Bruni examine the values and worldview of elite schools as well.  Higher education is full of liberalism across the board, but it seems that the Ivies are at the forefront of politically and socially liberal ideas.  Students who are politically, socially, or religiously more conservative will not find a balanced presentation at elite colleges.  If a Christian student, for example, wants to engage his faith in his academic field, professors at an elite college will probably not encourage him to do so.

University life in the U.S. is sick in many ways.  The frantic scramble for spots at the top universities doesn't help the madness.  I hope my son gets into Columbia, if that is truly where he wants to study.  I just hope he keeps a good head on his shoulders and recognizes the wide array of possibilities for a bright, motivated college-bound student.  I also hope he recognizes that going to a smaller Christian college, a state school, or a regional liberal arts college, isn't a death knell for his life.  You don't have to live very long to know admirable, highly successful adults who went to colleges you have never heard of, and to meet graduates of Ivy League schools who are pretty darn average.

Does it matter where you go to college.  Frankly, yes.  But as Bruni concludes, "Where we go to college will have infinitely less bearing on our fulfillment in life than so much else: the wisdom with which we choose our romantic partners; our interactions with the communities that we inhabit; our generosity toward the families that we inherit and the familiar that we make.  We know that no college can compete with getting any one of these things right, let alone getting several or all of them right."  That's just a hard thing for a 17 year old to remember when he's filling out college applications.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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