Challenging the Value of Prestigious Universities

One of the benefits of being a radio talk show host and a bibliophile, is the many books I get every month in my mail box. I receive so many, and they compete for my attention with those I actually purchase. I open the packages for all the books, and I am sure I look like a kid at Christmas. The vast majority of the time they are as exciting as socks from your aunt. I shrug my shoulders and try to find more space on my crowded bookshelves. Some books are even useful, like the football I use to get when the one I had been using simply needed replacement. Occasionally I receive that book which reminded me of those rare gifts that I hinted about for months, but was still wildly surprised when I received it. A new book by Frank Bruni, entitled Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be: An antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is just such a book.

According to a statement accompanying the book, "year after year, high school seniors open college rejection notices that destroy their confidence and lead them to believe they have failed at one of life's most critical junctures -- a process that has hijacked so many American households with college-bound kids. While there are countless books that claim to teach students how to identify and earn admission to the college of there dreams, there's a deep need for a dialogue questioning the intensity and wisdom of those aspirations." That is exactly what Bruni's book does and it does so brilliantly.

The book begins by boldly challenging the idea that the "best schools" are the "best schools" for anyone who can get in them. One's career is not history if unable to get into their first school of choice, he argues.

Bruni's story is different but rings true. He turned down early admission from Yale University to go to school with virtually all his expenses covered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Doing this went against his parents' desire. From the tenth grade, his parents paid for him to go to an expensive private school to enhance his chances to eventually enjoy Ivy. He knew his parents were more than willing to make it possible for him to go to one of the nation's most prestigious institutions.

So why Chapel Hill instead of Ivy splendor? Several reasons, including additional educational opportunities, with his education, being paid for by his school. It gave himself a chance to take care of himself and, in a way, his family. He knew it would bring additional challenges that one might not receive at Yale.

He points out that individuals that end up going to less well known schools as stellar students rather than barely making it to some of the countries most elite institutions, end up receiving opportunities that they could never enjoy in the Ivies. They become class president, they do research projects typically afforded only to graduate students, and they get to engage with faculty in a way that is virtually unheard of for undergraduates in prestigious schools.

Bruni, in particular, focuses on the various rating programs and shows disdain for the US News & World Reports rating. He describes them as arrogant and arbitrary. He points out that many leaders in the most elite schools (the biggest beneficiary of their favorable reviews) will tell you privately they hate such ratings, while blasting their existence in their propaganda. These ratings often make schools (and their students), slaves to things that are not particularly important and as a result, many fail to remember the truly important aspects of education.

Finally, he talks about the many successful students that went to less well known schools simply because it was necessary. Some were late bloomers academically, or simply couldn't afford to go to "better" schools, they had home environments that didn't foster an appreciation for education so they had to largely go it alone, and the list goes on. It reminds me of my own story. I was one of the first in my family to get a bachelor's degree. My parents were sympathetic, but could not understand exactly what I was doing. I ended up going to Abilene Christian University, which in no time had faculty playing the role of supportive family. The fact it had a strong emphasis on undergraduates rather than graduate students, I received a level of attention not found in the country's largest (and often most prestigious schools). ACU understood what the challenges were of being a student on one's own. I often wonder if I would have graduated without that particular school. Bruni's book is written for students like me, people who needed a different way to look at their options and are able to know they can define their own futures, in what many would define as a world of limitations. Bruni's book is must reading.