Below I will share his findings, some advice and good news, and finally some soothing words for parents and students who enrolled in a competitive independent high school (or in some cases, preschool) with hopes of gaining admission to an Ivy League or similar college.
(Note: There’s a lot of information here, virtually all of it coming from the book without additional attribution by me. I can point interested parties to specific pages and passages on request, though your best bet is to head on over to Amazon or your local library.)
The Gallup-Purdue index measures student results on five key dimensions of well-being: Purpose, Social, Physical, Financial, and Community. The dimensions can be summarized as: How much they liked what they were doing (Purpose); how supportive they found the relationships in their lives (Social); whether they felt healthy and energetic (Physical); whether they managed their financial lives in a way that made them feel less stressed and more secure (Financial); whether they felt connected to and proud of the places they lived and spent most of their time (Community). The study found no difference in workplace engagement or well-being based on whether the person went to an “elite” school.
There is no causal relationship between one’s undergraduate school and success in business. Rather, performance in college and in jobs is a better gauge. For example, of the CEOs of the ten largest companies in the 2014 Fortune 500, only one had an Ivy League degree. Of the top 100, thirty attended Ivy League or similarly selective schools. Would you consider Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Whittier College, the University of Michigan, Georgia Southwestern College, and Eureka College to be elite schools? They were the initial college destinations of every US President from 1963 to 1989. Fewer than 30% of the 2014 U.S. Senate went to “Ivy-caliber” colleges.
“Elite” colleges don't cause success. They reflect it. Graduates of elite colleges earn more because they were predisposed to do so. Those who chose other schools (when they can choose between elite and non-elite) have no statistical difference in post-college income. The correlation between your school and your income is only half as strong as the correlation between schools that REJECTED you and your income. Overall, those who strive for success had the same results regardless of whether they were admitted to their first choice of schools. (With the possible exception of some minority students, who gained access to networking opportunities they hadn't previously had).
According to D Michael Lindsay’s Platinum Study of people in power (CEOs, non-profit leaders, presidents, government officials), about two-thirds of those surveyed attended colleges that are not considered elite. However, for those who earned graduate degrees, about the same portion did so at top 10 schools in their field. The implication is that success in college leads to success in graduate school, and motivated students at any college can earn a place in the most highly respected graduate schools (and post-graduate positions).
More and more colleges are using the Common Application as part of their admissions process, which makes it easier for students to apply to more colleges. This has caused the number of applications at highly selective schools to increase dramatically, which is one of the leading reasons the acceptance rate has dropped at many schools. Some professionals believe that once a college’s admittance rate falls below 30%, the college is no longer able to make rational admissions decisions because it is hard to make distinctions between the applicants.
The perception that it has become nearly impossible to get into highly selective schools is not necessarily supported by the evidence. While international students now make up roughly 10% of students at highly selective colleges, and most colleges aren't growing as fast as the potential student population, it is not true that significantly fewer American students are going to highly selective schools. However, fewer are going to their FIRST choice because the admissions game has become a crapshoot due to the dramatic increase in applications, driven by the Common Application and fear. More students end up at Yale instead of Princeton, or Linfield instead of the University of Puget Sound, but most are getting into at least one school for which they are well-suited.
Colleges promote the admissions mania because having a low admission rate is a badge of honor. The drive for high rankings in flawed polls is a self-perpetuating problem. Colleges want to score highly with US News & World Report, and students and parents perceive they should aim for the best ranked schools. As a result, colleges engage in counter-intuitive behavior that points to the limited usefulness of the rankings. For example, one highly selective liberal arts college (you’ll have to read the book to find out which one!) had asked applicants to supplement the Common Application with two 500-word essays. They found that their number of applications began to lag behind their competitors because high school seniors who want to apply as many places as possible tend to look for the easiest applications. The college risked being seen as not as selective if their acceptance ratio was higher than comparable schools. The fear of this perception drove them to replace the two 500-word essays with one 250-word essay. As a result, they not only reduced their ability to meaningfully evaluate applicants, but also gave a disadvantage to the seniors who were most interested in the college (as evidenced by their willingness to complete a more thorough application). They made their application easier (and less useful to the admissions staff) to avoid the perception that they weren't a desirable school, and probably ended up with a lower-quality and less school-appropriate student body. Nobody wins, except those who work for the college and are evaluated based on arbitrary measures of success. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” - William Bruce Cameron
For some students, going to college in your desired region to live may be more important than the prestige of the school, because of the local network and the experience you gain. Some schools, particularly large public ones, have strong regional ties. In some cases a degree from your state school will carry more weight than one from a distant highly selective college. On the other hand, small liberal arts colleges are disproportionately successful at producing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates and PhDs.
Many large public schools, despite their reputations as behemoths at which students get lost, have small programs for academically accomplished students who want advanced and adventurous courses. For example, 40% of Arizona State University courses have fewer than 20 students, while just 17% have more than 50. Still, ASU has a reputation as a party school with a low graduation rate, but polls and reputations sometimes don’t take into account the underlying reasons for the results. Part of the school’s strategy is to generally admit any Arizona high school graduate who has a 3.0 average in core classes. As a result its acceptance rate is about 80%. Many admitted students come from low-income families, and there is a correlation between family income and the probability of completing college. Acceptance rate and graduation rate are two of the factors used by some ranking systems, so Arizona State’s mission causes lower rankings. Yet many of their students are in high demand by employers. According to a 2010 Wall Street Journal survey of entry-level hiring at large companies and agencies, ASU ranked fifth among schools the recruiters liked best and trusted most.
Advice and Good News
As we know, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Based on Bruni’s book, I will pepper you with all of them in this section. You can choose which of these nuggets are most useful for you and your family.
Good news: Merit-based college scholarships appear to be on the rise. Why? In part because average SAT scores are one of the factors in college rankings, and in some cases schools are willing to use donor money to pay high-scoring students to beef up those averages.
More good news: Colleges receive applications from many students with great resumes, and they can easily fill their freshman class with good students. You may be tempted to do something outlandish to catch a school’s attention, but don’t do it. Admissions officers have seen it all, and they sometimes reject otherwise-qualified students who do crazy things or show signs of obsession in their college pursuit. There’s more than one destination that will suit you just fine.
Legacy matters: If your parents are alums, your chances of getting into Stanford or Harvard are significantly better, though still quite long.
Sports matter: Being an athlete or a performer, especially one with a specialty, makes a difference. Schools find it easier to raise money and attract students when the major sports teams are successful. They also need to fill gaps with people who are specialized experts in sports and the arts. “We need an oboe player and a world class swimmer.”
Niches matter: Similarly, filling an academic niche matters. For some colleges, physics and computer science courses stand out on the applications of female students, because they are seeking balanced classes.
Don’t become complacently mediocre: The unwritten rules of Admissions Mania imply the way to keep score is whether you get admitted, without regard to performance or heart upon arrival. Students have been trained to become admissible. Gaining access and besting the competition can become their principal goal and primary accomplishment. The unfortunate outcome is that some elite school students settle into complacent mediocrity because they feel entitled (and are made by the schools to feel entitled) based on being admitted.
Disrupt your life: College is, or should be, disruptive. Become a new person, not letting the ink dry on the person you were at 17. Students often try to make college as comfortable and recognizable as possible, joining groups that perpetuate their high school cliques. They network with peers who have identical aspirations, thereby defaulting to a lifelong habit of cliquishness. Former MIT teacher Junot Diaz says elite schools sometimes produce "fragile thoroughbreds" trained to peak performance on tests and term papers, but not to the unpredictability and tumult of adulthood. Many come to fulfill expectations rather than to upend everything.
Strengthen your weaknesses: The founder of Weebly, David Rusenko, had been a computer-savvy youth, and was accepted to highly-respected Carnegie Mellon. He chose Penn State instead because he was worried about emerging from college an "unsociable nerd" without the skills to succeed. He wanted to expand his boundaries into big crowds, football games, and parties. He wanted to round out the big picture to build on what he already had. He was in a Penn State program designed to produce well-rounded technologists, and it seems to have worked well for him.
Use defeat as a springboard: When students ask Condoleeza Rice what they need to do to become Secretary of State, she answers, “you start as a failed piano major” at the University of Denver. (She also advises being aggressive with getting to know teachers in whom you are interested. Read their writings, then go talk to them during office hours. You will be remembered and get more time from the teacher.) As a youngster in Brooklyn and Queens, Dick Parsons dreamed of going to Princeton. When that dream died as a result of rejection, he chose a more distant option, the University of Hawaii. He says he remembers nothing from college except that it made him realize he could survive on his own 5000 miles from home. That gave him confidence he could prosper. Later he become the CEO of Time Warner and Citigroup. More recently, he was in the news for stepping in as interim leader of the Los Angeles Clippers while they were rudderless during the negotiations to oust Donald Sterling.
Soothing Words For Anxious Parents and Students
Finally, here are some calming thoughts for parents and students who’ve invested in independent schools or moved to great school districts as a way of getting into prestigious colleges. Joseph Ross saw many of childhood friends in suburban Buffalo go off to Ivy League schools or other highly selective northeast colleges. He, however, was rejected by Penn and Cornell and ended up at Rochester. Out of his highly competitive high school environment, Ross found he excelled, developed academic assertiveness he hadn't possessed before, and stretched himself. He went to medical school, choosing a state school that made good sense financially, and continued to excel. He focused on what he was passionate about rather than focusing on getting into school X, concentrating on deeds and not labels. Now, at the young age of 40 (shut up, 40 is young) he is a physician, a faculty member teaching internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, and an associate editor at JAMA Internal Medicine.
His journey had barely begun the day he “lost” the game of College Admissions Mania.