By Pamela Awad
Anyone you know applying to college?
Few situations are as charged as the admissions process, and application mania, while a treatable condition, is a recognizable disorder that afflicts many high school students and their parents. Our preoccupation with elite schools, and how that squares with our definition of success, was at the heart of Frank Bruni’s talk to those attending NYC-Parents in Actions annual fall benefit lunch, earlier this month. “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be,” is the title of Bruni’s most recently published book, and his address to the crowd of mostly mothers argued his impassioned stance.
To great laughter, Bruni, wearing a lavender button down shirt and blazer, described his own family’s academic aspirations. “The sound track of my adolescence was my mother driving along reading the car stickers aloud (indicating the schools children were attending) and commenting ‘Duke, Dartmouth, Stanford, Oh! They did really well’.” So while acceptance to an elite school (a school having the most restrictive admissions criteria and lowest acceptance rate) has always been a goal for many students, today the process is, in Bruni’s words, “exponentially more intense than a quarter of a century ago.” He believes this is true in part because, “we have selective conversations and we tell selective truths. We see stories about how every Supreme Court judge is touched by ivy,” he said, “but you never hear that only one third of the men and women in the Senate went to elite schools.” “Want to be Secretary of State?” he asked. “Start as a failed piano major,” like Condoleezza Rice whose undergraduate degree is from the University of Denver. Bruni reminded the audience that we forget “there are any number of kinds of educational paths that get you to distinction, accomplishment, success, contentment.” He researched where the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ award winners went to school and found that one in five “graduated from colleges with acceptance rates of over 50%,” furthering his argument that geniuses aren’t determined by where they went to school but rather, by “how your college education shapes you.”
For some, getting in to an Ivy is the ultimate achievement, as Bruni illustrated with a story about his stint teaching a food-writing seminar at Princeton. Puzzled that his students’ written letters of application to the course were far more eloquent than their actual work,he consulted other Princeton faculty. “Getting through the door is the achievement,” they said. “These students today have prioritized getting in to exclusive realms.” It seems to matter less what they do once they’re inside the classroom, an unfortunate circumstance since Bruni argues selectiveness doesn’t equal quality, a lower acceptance rates doesn’t make a better school, and attendance at an elite school doesn’t ensure contentment.
Ah, contentment; want your children to be happy for the rest of their lives? Bruni cited the Gallop Purdue Index, an ongoing and comprehensive survey of college graduates that seeks to measure the most important outcomes of a college education, that is, do graduates feel they have a successful and engaging career and are they thriving in life? The study found “virtually no relationship between the selectiveness of the schools that people go to and how contented they report being later on.” What did matter was a relationship with a mentor, being actively involved in extracurricular activities or in a project that took at least a semester to finish, or having an internship that related to a student’s studies. Contentment and self perceived success later in life is closely tied to a student’s engagement in the college experience.
Which begs the question, “Is there a profound difference between elite and non-elite schools?” And if there is, what are the costs, process and risks along the way? Bruni told a story of orange vested safety workers on suicide watch at railroad crossings in Palo Alto. “Our achievement oriented society produces unusual levels of anxiety and depression,” he said. We feed into that when we talk about one school being more desirable than another, or when we encourage kids to follow a prescribed route, the goal being acceptance at the most selective college of their choice. “We’re telling (our children) that calculation matters more than passion, that packaging matters more than substance and that life yields to tidy scripts and can be predicted and gamed out, which is simply not true.” He quoted noted Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwarz who said, “Kids today (versus students 25 or 30 years ago) want to be given a clear and unambiguous path to success, a recipe. And that’s the wrong thing to be wanting. Progress isn’t made by a recipe, recipes create cooks, and they don’t produce chefs!” There’s no formula for becoming “accomplished, content, interesting adults” Bruni said, “When we sketch everything out for kids we don’t allow for serendipity, surprise, u-turns, digressions,” the things that enrich our day to day lives.
Bruni holds a degree from UNC Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, but describes himself as the “skunk at the sticker garden party” when comparing himself to his siblings. He chose Chapel Hill over Yale and for him that’ s made all the difference. “Chapel Hill gave me a better sense of what the real world is; I think that’s an important component of education.” It also gave him the perspective to ask profound questions about the value of education and question the assumptions that come with a degree from an Ivy League or elite school. How does a successful life happen? In his words, “there is no “magic fairy dust” that elite schools sprinkle over their students. “Success is that special combination of doing what you love and what you’re good at. Taking time to (find out) what that is, is very important.” “Being the kind of person from the kind of background where you have the curiosity, the ambition, the faith in yourself, the exposure to the world that led you to be aware of and to apply to an elite school” (regardless of whether you’re accepted or choose to go) suggests where you go, is not who you’ll be.