New York Times journalist Frank Bruni called me some time ago to chat about the frenzy that accompanies admission to top colleges. Having worked at Dartmouth College in the admissions office and 15 years as a college consultant, I've seen every facet of admissions: the good, the bad and the ugly. Bruni's new book was just released (Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania) and focuses on how you don't need an Ivy League degree (he points out only 1/10 top Fortune 500 CEO's hail from an Ivy League college) to be successful in life. On this point, Mr. Bruni and I are in complete agreement -- everyone knows Bill Gates didn't graduate from college and if your end game is to be an entrepreneur or president of a big company, an Ivy League degree is certainly not a prerequisite. Even if you attend a top college, you still have to do well academically. The student who graduates in the bottom half of the class at Yale isn't necessarily going to get hired by Goldman Sachs or be admitted to a top doctoral program (although the presidency would still be an option, but I digress).
So why my reservations about the premise of his book? In short, it's because Mr. Bruni focuses more on the end game (eventual career/job) than the education itself. I would argue that attending a top college is not worthwhile because of the brand name of the institution, but rather because of the resources and opportunities for high level scholarship, access to top professors, alumni networking and motivated classmates. College is about the education, not the job one gets upon graduation.
Granted, matriculating at Harvard or Williams or Princeton will not automatically make you a scholar or lead you to high levels of introspection, but for a student who wants to study a particular academic field at a high level, the opportunities available at top tier colleges are unparalleled for those who are poised to take advantage of them: holding the actual copy of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land from Princeton's special collections and seeing Ezra Pound's manic red editing marks that cut down the poem to manageable size, doing high level research at Dartmouth's U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory or taking advantage of the Williams-Exeter Program that offers a year-long program of study at Oxford University.
I live in Vermont in a rural town of 800 people near a small college town that sends students from six rural elementary schools to the same public high school. The high school is a typical industrial-looking building with an aging facility, ancient bathrooms, cinderblock walls and enough florescent lighting for a giant warehouse. Many students do well here and continue on to all levels of college. Having gone to public school myself, I was reluctant to take my daughter to visit private boarding schools as I viewed them as elitist, sheltered and hopelessly unrealistic. But my daughter wanted to focus on classics (Latin and Greek language and culture) and there was no significant way to do that at a high level in our area.
So we visited some of the top boarding schools on the East Coast, a precursor to college visits five years later. Exeter had a $27 million science center covering 72,000 square feet of classroom space, an $11 million endowment just for the science center and a state of the art observatory that included three domed observatories, a heated classroom building with its own library and additional telescopes. And that was just the science building. St. Paul's had the beautiful Ohrstrom Library with 75 million print volumes. Groton featured a classics department that rivals that of many colleges. Deerfield had a brand new $24 million, 80,000-square-foot arts facility complete with an art gallery, concert hall, acting lab, recording studio and music practice rooms and art studios. My daughter ultimately chose to attend one of these schools so she could have the chance to do high level Greek and Latin knowing that if anything, it would be harder to get into college.
When I worked as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, we had a "flag" for rural students from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine from non-college backgrounds. Our local high school sends many students to excellent colleges, public and private, and it would certainly have been easier for her to stay home than to attend a school where only 11 percent of the applicants were admitted in the first place and everyone competes against each other.
I agree with Mr. Bruni that the point of an Ivy level college is NOT for the brand recognition or car decal. It's to study with a high concentration of scholars in any field. It's to be in classes with other motivated students. It's to have greater access to possible funding for what you want to study and to have access to a lifelong alumni network. Not all graduates of elite colleges continue on to banking and business. Many apply to law school, medical schools and doctoral programs from these colleges. Williams College underscores that they have the highest acceptance rate to medical school of any college.
Nick Romeo from New Republic Magazine shows how Mr. Bruni uses anecdotes over actual data to draw his conclusions: "He cites a study by the sociologist D. Michael Lindsay that found that nearly two-thirds of a set of 550 powerful Americans did not attend institutions considered elite. But reversing the framing would produce a very different conclusion: More than a third did attend an elite institution, a disproportionate percentage considering that highly selective schools represent only a tiny fraction of educational options in America. He further undermines his own case by noting that over 40 percent of the incoming class at Yale Law School in 2013 and 2014 came from one of the eight schools in the Ivy League, while less than 20 percent of the class had graduated from state schools. Emphasizing the stories of students from that 20 percent serves his agenda, but it doesn't change the strength of the correlation. Anecdotes don't refute trends."
Of course they don't -- the real surprise is that there are so many graduates of elite colleges in law/business/medicine/doctoral programs considering what a low percentage of graduates that group consists of relative to the population of college graduates from all other colleges.
Do you have to attend an elite college to run a company? Run for Congress? Definitely not. It's not hard to point out the high level politicians who did attend elite colleges and who manage to show high level incompetence despite their exalted pedigrees (going back to my point that the mere fact of attending a top college does not a scholar make). It seems overstated to conclude that aspiring to elite colleges is wrong. For the right student, for the right reasons and for the right need-based financial aid package, that college might be the right choice. Is it wrong to aspire?