College: It's not where you get in, but how you come out

As a nation, we devote far fewer resources to helping students suck the marrow from colleges than on how to ace the SAT
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Another year of the tortuous college-application process will soon draw to a close. Across America, high school seniors are making their choice from the colleges that accepted them.

(At our house, the marathon ended last year when our younger son sent his acceptance to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Lori and I are still recovering.)

But there is something flawed with the whole college application ordeal. Virtually all the emphasis is on where you get into college, and almost none on how to get the most out of college. It's as if the brand name of the institution, and where it sits on overly simplified rankings, will be the most important factor in the student's future life.

Rethinking the equation

In fact, what matters far more than the name on the hat is how the mind under the hat engages that college. Yet as a nation, we devote far fewer resources to helping students suck the marrow from colleges than on how to ace the SAT.

Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, says we've got it perfectly backwards.

"We've reversed the equation--that the college is going to make something out of your life, when actually it's the student who makes something out of college," he says.

Here's what Dean Brenzel says students and their parents need to know:

"Any strong college contains infinitely more opportunity than any student, no matter how smart and motivated, can extract in four short years. No kid is going to tap out one of these places. If students are prepared to engage, they will find resources in abundance. If they are not, it doesn't matter if they are hand carried into their dream schools."

For a fascinating account of the Yale admissions process and the damaging fixation on misleading college ratings, listen to Dean Brenzel's podcast here.

Not a few pearls but many oysters

The consequences of our upside-down priorities are important, both for hundreds of thousands of individual young students who taste rejection from a tiny ecosystem of top institutions, and also for our nation. This skewed thinking misses the true greatness of education in America: the many hundreds of fine colleges and universities where millions of young people can open the world for their enrichment. In America, there aren't just a few academic pearls--there is a vast collegiate oyster bed stretching from sea to shining sea.

The statistics bear this out.

Any number of studies of luminaries in various professions demonstrate that far more leaders come from colleges not in the top brand rankings. This is partly a matter of numbers, as the quantity of graduates from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Stanford is tiny compared with all the rest. But it's really more that there are hundreds of colleges and universities more than good enough to provide motivated and skilled students the education they need to succeed at the highest levels.

Malcolm Gladwell explains this overlooked fact in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you examine, for example, where Nobel Prize winners in medicine and chemistry went to college, you'll find no dominance of the elite schools.

It's possible that our skewed emphasis on trying to get into a handful of top schools has an unintended benefit of handing millions of kids early rejection, which can sometimes fire more ambition. But in any case, we should be paying more attention to helping students gain the most they can from the schools they attend. And just what would be this advice?

I put this question to Yale's Jeffrey Brenzel, to John Jaquette, the executive director of Cornell's campus-wide entrepreneurship program, and to Tom Morris, who for a decade was an inspired and inspiring professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Here are a few of their recommendations:

  1. Seek out the top professors no matter what they teach, regardless of whether it's related to your major, and sit in on one of their lectures. It will be easy to learn who they are from campus buzz.

  • Reach out to your fellow students and expect to learn as much from them as from faculty members. Some will remain friends for life. Others may be future business partners.
  • Make a special effort to connect with students from different backgrounds. You may never have another chance to so easily gain insights into so many other cultures.
  • Get inside places on campus you normally wouldn't enter. Take a tour of the bell tower, or the backstage of the theater, or the nanotechnology lab or broadcast studios--wherever you're not likely to be as part of your regular school life.
  • I know from counseling my own two sons that it's easier to give this advice than to act on it. College students are usually overloaded with work. In their few spare hours, they naturally seek the comfort of friends and familiar routes--or just a nap. But I remind my boys that their college years will fly by (my older son graduates this May--when did that happen?). They may never again have it so easy to witness unfamiliar scenes and engage in lofty discussions with unusual people. And who knows what those encounters may touch off?

    As Arianna so wisely observes, those years at college can change forever what you do--and realize you can do--with the rest of your life.

    How would you come out differently?

    If you had college to do over again, what would you do differently? I'd love to hear and share your advice. It may end up being far more important to new college students than the brand on their sweatshirts and hats.

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