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Why families stress too much about college admissions

March 17, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
The college admissions process can be riddled with anxiety and stress for high school seniors and their parents. But in the book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” author and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues it doesn’t have to be this way. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Bruni to discuss how the obsession with getting into the right school may not pay off.

GWEN IFILL: These next few weeks are anxious ones for many high school seniors and their parents. It’s when they find out if they have been accepted to the colleges or universities on their wish list.

But the author of a new book argues that, after all the blood and sweat and tears, it’s not worth it.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where did you go to college?  And more to the point, for many young people now awaiting decisions, where do you hope to go, and how much do you have riding on it?

A new book with the provocative title “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” proposes that the whole college admissions project is out of whack and even that rejection can be a wonderful thing.

Its author is New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who, for the record, attended the University of North Carolina.

So, madness, nonsense, those are just some of the words you use for what you see as a broken system. What’s the brunt of the argument?  What happened to our system?

FRANK BRUNI, Author, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be“: What happened to our system is, we became brand-obsessed. We became convinced, or at least parents did, that if their kids didn’t get into the right colleges, they wouldn’t have as bright futures, they wouldn’t make as much money.

We somehow bought that this moment in late March, early April, when you find out where you’re going to go to school, sets the whole trajectory for your life. And it’s so untrue and it’s the source of so much unnecessary anxiety. And that’s what I go into in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that is what I was going to ask you. With what result?  What has it done to young people?  What has it done to our colleges?

FRANK BRUNI: Well, let’s start with what it has done to young people.

It has driven them mad in high school. You see rates of depression and medication that I think we didn’t see before. It’s also taught them a very curious set of values. We’re telling them that getting into the door of something, that kind of breaching the inner sanctum is the most important thing.

And one of my biggest concerns is that they get to college and they don’t realize that what matters is what they do there, not the name on the diploma. And that’s a big concern.

JEFFREY BROWN: The perpetrators here are pretty widespread in your book, colleges for pushing the brand, the selectivity, parents for somehow getting this idea that they must get their kids into the best school.

FRANK BRUNI: Yes.

Well, I’m really glad you mentioned the colleges themselves, because they are culprits here. Colleges have become businesses that market themselves aggressively, send out more information. I talk in the book about ivory tower porn. They are trying to boost the number of applicants they get to their schools, so they can then — it’s a really perverse thing, because they want those applicants so they can reject a given number and have a low acceptance rate.

And that’s fed this whole idea that you want to go to the most selective school. And everything feeds into everything else and you end up with a system that, as you said earlier, is out of whack.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to see how far you want to push this. I want to play a little clip that — we went out to some local schools.

Here is a young woman from a high school in Maryland who is in the application process now.

FRANK BRUNI: I pity her.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDRE’ANA MILLER: I’m a networking person, so I know how to talk to people. And when they hear that you have gone to certain schools or you have done certain things with the people at these schools, it also makes a big difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so you hear that a lot, right?  Networking. You go to certain schools, it makes a difference. Are you saying she’s completely wrong?

FRANK BRUNI: No, she’s not completely wrong.

There are ways in which the network at given schools can help. Certain schools feed certain industries, for example, but what I’m saying is that thinking is very flawed in its narrowness. In the book, I present stories of a lot of people we respect greatly, great business leaders, artist, politicians, who have had the most brilliant careers imaginable, and they have gotten there through a variety of schools, including many state schools.

So, what I’m saying is to think that it all hinges on that network you’re going to get at an Ivy League school is not true. There are so many different paths to brilliant careers and great success, and to believe that there are only a few is to shortchange yourself and shortchange the college experience you’re going to have if you don’t end up at one of those few places.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and that goes to what I said in our introduction. If you’re also telling people that rejection may end up being a good thing, and you do cite a lot of examples, but is that what you would say to young people?  It’s OK to be rejected or don’t aim that high?  What exactly do you tell them?

FRANK BRUNI: Well, I would tell them it’s OK to be rejected for many reason, one of which is through that experience you learn a talent more important than anything else, which is resilience.

Most of life is about rebounding from mistakes, rebounding from failures, rebounding from disappointments. And to have that happen to you when you’re 17 or 18, and to master it, I mean, that’s an incredible gift.

But there are other reasons why it’s good for you, too — or not necessarily good for you, but not bad for you. There is no one school that’s going to be right for you. There are many different kinds of schools, and sometimes kids who are rejected from their top choices and end up at their second or third choices or fifth choices approach those schools with an appetite and with an insistence on getting a good education that leads them to a better education than they might have gotten at their top choice.

Kids who get into their top choice sometimes think, OK, my work is done and now I have it made, which is not true. Kids who get into their sixth choice often go there and think, OK, I’m going to make up for what I lost, even though they haven’t lost that much. I’m going to really attack this with a zeal, and that ends up being crucial.

JEFFREY BROWN: We are at a time when college is so expensive. You and I have talked about this. College is so expensive. Jobs are very hard to come by. How do you make this case to everybody to kind of calm down in a sense when the stakes seem so much higher, when the pressure on everybody is so much greater?

FRANK BRUNI: Well, because what I explore and explain and I think argue successfully in the book is the stakes are not as high as you think they’re going to be, the stakes meaning where you go to college.

But you mentioned money, which is — I’m really glad you did. We have wonderful state schools throughout this country, and many, many of them have these amazing honors programs that kids aren’t even aware of this. You can go to a school like Arizona State University, and if you’re an exemplary student, you can end up in the Honors College there, and you will have an experience that is commensurate with the best education anywhere else.

You are going to graduate having paid a lot less money, and you’re much less likely to have debt, and that has meaning. So I think we do need to think about expense and we need to have kids look at state schools, not with the disdain and saying, oh, those don’t have the snob appeal of another school, but saying these are really great values and that makes a difference.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be”

Frank Bruni, thanks so much.

FRANK BRUNI: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You can see more of Jeff’s conversation with Frank Bruni, where they discuss the extreme measures some students take to make their applications stand out. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

 

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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