Times Insider Book Club: More on College Admissions Mania
09/18/2019 College Admissions Narrative

(New York Times) By Insider Staff.

 Do you think universities outside the U.S. with lower tuition rates, or, in some cases, tuition free, are a better choice? I am thinking mainly Canadian Universities and the U.K. and Europe.
— Janice Badger Nelson

Frank Bruni: It depends, of course, on the particular school, and I’m not nearly well-informed enough about colleges outside the United States to name the ones that represent the safest bets.

I hasten to add, though, that I don’t believe it’s easy, possible or sensible to divide the world into good schools and bad schools, because the education a student gets has every bit as much to do with the control he or she seizes over it, the experiences he or she demands, the thoroughness and cleverness with which he or she surveys the landscape of that school and figures out how to till it to the best of his or her advantage.

In fact, I’ve met graduates of supposedly “lesser” schools who, because they felt it incumbent on them to maximize that experience, got more out of their higher education than an elite-school student who felt that he or she could just coast through, absorbing the glory of it all by osmosis.

More specifically to your question: There can be a short-term risk to going to a foreign school that’s unfamiliar to some American employers, who aren’t accustomed to hiring from there, might not be entirely confident of its instruction and graduates, and might assume, wrongly, that the student was having a grand lark. But I think that’s offset by several advantages, and so I think considering schools outside the United States is a fine idea for students who have the maturity and confidence to travel that far from home.

For one thing, education is about expanding your parameters, broadening your frame of reference and challenging your previously held assumptions. Nothing does that as well as entering another country, another culture. Also, the world of business is more international and companies’ reaches are more global than ever before, so you might actually find that your familiarity with, and fluency in, another country could be a résumé plus. And if, in a given situation, going abroad saves money and prevents a college graduate from emerging with enormous debt, well, that’s a major consideration, too. To emerge from college with more rather than less debt is to have to make immediate career and job decisions that are dictated almost entirely by salary and the need to repay that debt. It can discourage the kind of long-term pacing and planning that may be the best way to sculpt a career.


Finding Under-the-Radar Schools and Blocking Out Noise: A Quick How-To Guide

Any suggestions on resources to good schools that may not have the name recognition? What are your suggestions on helping kids block out the noise? (Deactivating from social media beginning fall of senior year perhaps?) These days, my kids want to impose a moratorium on college discussion (I have a junior and a freshman, and they’re sick of all the college talk at school and home regarding who’s going where) — we’ve repeatedly told them college is just a place you spend four years of your life and it will not make or break you, they will end up where they’re meant to be, but somehow it is still a source of stress. Kids have it rough these days.
— Anne Blythe

Frank Bruni: Stippled throughout the paperback version of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” are anecdotes about schools — and sketches of schools — that might not come on your radar otherwise, and the paperback has a bibliography with books and websites that speak to your concern and might help.

Let me single out two of these. The first is familiar to many people, and it’s called “Colleges That Change Lives,” a website that evolved from a beloved book of the same title. The second is less familiar, though I wrote a column that described it. It’s a survey of honors programs and honors colleges at public universities throughout the country, and it too comes in book and website form.

As for blocking out the noise, you can’t control what happens at school or on social media. You can and should control what happens at home, and need to start monitoring that early on. Think about how often we adults, when trying to start a conversation with a teenager and find some quick and easy subject matter for that, ask: “What are you thinking about college?” or, worse, “Where are you thinking about going to college?” Every time we do that, we send a message that the selection of a college should be at the center of their thoughts at all times and that where they decide to go is going to define them. There’s an argument for a drumbeat of “college, college, college” in a disadvantaged community where kids need to hear that to realize that it’s a possibility for them and something to aim and strive for. But in many communities where that drumbeat is relentless, kids are bound for college anyway, and all that’s happening is that they’re being driven mad.


Missing From College Admissions: Logic and Integrity

Could this be considered consolation for the “losers” of the college application process? I was rejected, much to my chagrin, from all of the Ivy League schools, and I frequently wonder if I would buy into the notion that “schools do not define success” had I been one of the accepted students.
— Jeffrey Qiu

Frank Bruni: Explain to me how one is a “loser” if he or she didn’t get into a highly selective school that’s doing the following: reserving a certain number of spots for the children of its alumni; reserving another batch of spots for the children of celebrities and superrich people who will donate lavishly over time; using applicants to cast all of the various sports teams and orchestras and debating societies and such on campus; paying careful attention to the way the assembled class, with its test scores, will look on paper and influence meaningless rankings; making sure not to have too many kids from any one specific geographic area; paying attention to racial and ethnic diversity; giving certain applicants priority because they seem to be interested in disciplines and departments that are shy on students at that moment in time; prioritizing early-decision applicants, in order to improve yield; and including more international students than ever before for reasons that aren’t just about the tapestry of campus life but are also about netting applicants likely to be paying full freight.

My point is that this process is nowhere near a straightforward or objective evaluation of merit, which is largely subjective anyway. Some aspects of this process are rigged; other aspects are akin to a lottery. That is not to take away the accomplishment and compliment of being admitted, which more often than not reflects significant, laudable achievement. But there are many more students whose achievement warrants admission than there are students admitted. And there’s no reason to feel like a “loser” if you’re left outside the gates. If what I write in the book and in related materials is consolation, great. But what I’m really saying is you shouldn’t need or be looking for consolation, because that presumes a kind of integrity and logic to the process that don’t really exist.


Why This Book?

How did you decide to write this book? Was there a particular person or situation that moved you to pursue this topic?
— Kelly Linehan

Frank Bruni: When I began researching the book, I was at an age — 49 — that meant that many friends’ kids and a few of my many nieces and nephews were going or had just gone through the college admissions process, and I was confronted with how much more frenzied and brutal it had become over the 30 years since I’d been through it. And that frenzy was predicated on the notion that a handful of “elite” schools could guarantee a glorious future, while other sorts of schools would possibly impede one.

I looked at that and then I thought about what I’d seen in more than 25 years of journalism, during which I’d had an array of beats and interviewed and written about hundreds of successful people across scores of disciplines. Those people’s lives did not include the common thread of fancy undergraduate diplomas. Some had such diplomas. Many — probably more — didn’t. So there was a disconnect between the myth of Ivy importance and the reality of distinguished careers and contented lives forged in an infinity of ways. I felt strongly that the disconnect warranted examination. Hence the book.


Introducing: Race and Gender

Do your recommendations apply equally across race and gender lines?
— Byron Harrison

Frank Bruni: Generally, yes, but not exactly and not precisely. You ask a great and important question, and I’d refer you and everyone to the research of Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale, which questioned (and largely debunked) the notion that elite schools were sprinkling some magic fairy dust on their students and creating big careers that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But that same research noted that certain elite schools did seem to have a more measurable positive effect on the professional futures — at least as judged by earnings — of minority and first-generation college students, in whose case the imprimatur of that school’s name was perhaps a more important reassurance to employers or the network provided by that school was especially crucial, because there weren’t other family or high school networks to supplement it.

But my larger point — that there are multiple paths to where you’re going and that over-focusing on elite schools is unnecessary and wrongheaded — holds for all students, including minorities. Two young men I profile in the book illustrate that well. One got into Stanford and all the most competitive University of California schools but went instead to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County because of a special scholarship program that gave him a tightly knit community of support and mentorship. This worked out terrifically for him. Another went to the honors college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He’s now a Rhodes scholar.


Will a New Free Platform Help Students?

How do you feel about the new Coalition Application and how would it affect incoming high school senior applicants this fall?
— Michelle

Frank Bruni: For those unfamiliar with Michelle’s reference, she’s talking about a new group of more than 90 private and public colleges — most of them enormously prestigious ones, including all eight in the Ivy League — that have just made available a free online platform meant to guide students through the college admissions process, bring them up to speed on what’s required and give them ways and incentives to collect work they can share with colleges when application time comes. The group is called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.

I don’t know how to feel about it, because we haven’t yet seen how it winds up working. Next year’s applicants will be the first to have this portal and application option. I remain concerned about, and puzzled by, how the online platform addresses the goals the coalition says it has, which include demystifying the application process and broadening the socioeconomic diversity of applicants by giving more kids from more backgrounds a link to the schools in question. The online platform in and of itself won’t guarantee that broadening: Kids need to have instructors, mentors and counselors in their lives who make them aware of the platform and guide them toward it. Do they? Will they? This project will be only as successful as follow-up efforts to put this new tool in the hands that it’s supposedly designed for.


The ‘Client’ Never Fails

Mr. Bruni, my friend’s stepfather is a Stanford professor. He says that, as a matter of unwritten policy, Stanford and the other Ivy’s take a view of their student bodies which is much different from mainstream universities. Stanford sees its students not as competitors striving to prove themselves scholastically and earn their success within the school, but as clients — clients to be serviced with a level of academic credential and institutional support that will enable them to reach greater heights in life than normal people. 

In other words it’s a private club and once you’re in, you’re in; they won’t let you fail. Consequently this unofficial policy informs the behavior of the Stanford faculty in ways that it wouldn’t (and couldn’t) at a less prestigious school with less resources to lavish on students. Do you believe this revelation could be true, and if so why wouldn’t every high school student in America want to try their luck at joining such a club?
— J.

Frank Bruni: I believe this observation to be largely true but too narrowly rendered: It’s not only at Stanford and at Ivy League and Ivy-like schools that students have gone from being competitors to clients. That’s a shift that’s occurred over recent decades and over the last decade in particular at scores if not hundreds of colleges. And I think customers is a better word for it than clients, including in the sense that “the customer is always right.”

Consider that A’s and A-minuses are the most common grades at many if not most of the elite institutions, except perhaps in the sciences. Consider the amount of attention and money lavished on student services and student facilities that exist to the side of, and sometimes far from the heart of, the primary academic mission. Consider the impulse on many campuses to keep away speakers and purge conversations that upset prevailing sensibilities. Consider trigger warnings, which aren’t as widespread as the media sometimes suggests but which do exist and are emblematic of something larger.

When I taught at Princeton in the spring of 2014, it was still practicing what it called “grade deflation,” which meant that in a large, lecture-style course, the grades given had to average out to something like a 3.4 (or essentially a B-plus). (If that’s deflation, it’s a great illustration of how inflation is now the norm.) Students were so concerned about what this did to their transcripts vis-à-vis other Ivy Leaguers applying to grad schools that Princeton subsequently abandoned the practice. It had previously stopped making entrance into its Woodrow Wilson School selective and competitive among the undergraduates, as was once the case. Now anybody who chooses it as a major can have it. Maybe it should have always been thus, but the change in policy tells you something about the shifted balance of power toward the students, whose compulsory ratings of professors — a facet of the college experience that didn’t exist so prominently decades ago — inevitably color how rigorously those professors teach.

Why shouldn’t every student crave this experience? Because it may not be the right preparation for work and for life, which aren’t as forgiving and coddling. Because high standards and demanding appraisals are often what exhort you to your best achievements and best self. The list goes on.


Is College Worth the Bother?

Why college? I have a B.E., B.A. an M.E. and an M.S. I like learning, however they don’t mean a thing. I could do my job with my high school diploma. I cannot believe that the grade schools, junior high schools and high schools are that bad.
— Jonathan

Frank Bruni: It depends on the grade school, the junior high and the high school. Some are awful.

But that’s not the gist of your question, which seems to be: Is higher education even worth it? I fervently believe so, and most people who pursue higher education don’t rack up the number and diversity of degrees that you did, a cluster that may well be excessive. (It depends on what was required for your job and what motivated you to get those degrees.)

There remain many employers who, rightly or wrongly, won’t look at someone without a college diploma. There are many fields that require specific graduate degrees, and those graduate programs can’t be breached without a college diploma.

So as a job credential, college still matters very much. But college isn’t just or even principally vocational, and though I understand the reasons, I’m frustrated by how much of the conversation about college centers on its immediate, measurable utility and some blunt, dollars-and-cents cost/benefit analysis. College ideally doesn’t just pave the way toward a career but also paves the way toward more informed citizenship, more enlightened thinking, a better understanding of who you are and a better understanding of the world around you. It’s giving you tools for an engaged, thoughtful life. It’s exercising the muscle (so to speak) of your mind as surely as daily running exercises your heart.

There’s surely a point at or after which more education becomes self-indulgent. I don’t think that point arrives at the end of high school.


Résumés and What They Omit

Do you think high school résumé polishing” causes early burnout in kids? What do you think should be the primary criteria for choosing a college?
— Lisa J.

Frank Bruni: I think such résumé polishing — which can become frantic, manic — does cause problems, including burnout, and they’re problems of a particular kind. That’s what fascinates me.

Such polishing concentrates kids’ efforts on a very narrow spectrum of pursuits that play to their strengths and that are mastered with pure discipline, diligence and plotting. It doesn’t necessarily foster or reward creativity. It doesn’t acknowledge the importance of spontaneity, serendipity, setback, resilience and (to use the coinage du jour) grit in life and in eventual success. I think frequently of something that a former admissions director at Pomona said to me, because it’s something that other elite-school faculty members and administrators have also told me: They recruit and admit young men and women who are fantastic on paper but who are in fact very fragile, because they’ve flourished in a very particular way and in a very particular climate, with the illusion of complete control, and they don’t know how to pivot to new circumstances and turn on a dime.

As for the primary criteria for choosing a college, go with one that’s strong in the areas that interest you but also strong in areas that don’t, because you will be a different person at 19 than you were at 17 and you’ll be different again at 21. You’ll discover new sides of yourself. You’ll turn in new directions. Make sure the school can accommodate that.

Go with a college that will, as I said in another answer in this discussion, fill in the blanks of your life, expanding you and showing you new things rather than just validating who you already are and replicating your high school. Appraise the diversity at the colleges you’re considering: More diverse is better, because that means you’ll confront a wider range of perspectives, and such a range is key to education. If there’s an option that involves significantly less debt on the far end, give special consideration to that. Pay attention to which schools the adults in your life whom you find most interesting went to (not just the schools that the highest earners went to). Use the Internet enterprisingly and creatively, to get a real-time sense of what students at and recent alumni of a school think about the experience there.

Online Education: Why Not?

With the advent and robustness of online education, couldn’t a student learn just as much (or more) in that environment compared to the traditional brick and mortars? I see the Apples and Googles willing to hire based on what you know compared to your pedigree. But, since the brightest minds have generally been gravitating to the top schools, there’s a bias toward thinking that a degree from a top school being a prerequisite for those jobs.
— Day Yi

Frank Bruni: I don’t think the full verdict is yet in on online education as a complete substitute for the more traditional approach, and I have concerns and worries about it. There are aspects of the classroom experience that can’t be replicated online, including elements of interaction and socialization. Can one fully learn so-called soft skills and people skills online? Not based on the tenor of so much of the online and social-media discourse I see! Apple and Google aren’t the only employers out there, and their methods aren’t the only methods.

But you touch on a wider point that’s crucial and a big part of my push for people to stop obsessing on only a handful of schools: The skills you learn, the intelligence you build and the demonstration that you can make of your usefulness to an employer are going to be more important, broadly speaking, than the name of the school on your diploma. So focus on those, whether that’s online or on a campus.

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