High school graduates who plan to go on with their education are making plans to head off to college this fall. Not all of them were accepted to the college that was their first choice, and many are disappointed about it. Some young people didn’t get into college at all because they weren’t offered the help they needed to find a college that suited them financially and culturally. We talk to an author and to a high school counselor about the myths surrounding acceptance to an “elite” college, why a small or state school can be a better fit, and how high school counselors can better serve diverse and often financially strapped students.
- Frank Bruni, columnist for The New York Times, author of the book, Where You Go Is Not Who’ll You’ll Be: An antidote to the college admissions mania
- Joshua Steckel, counselor at a high school in Brooklyn, NY, co-author of the book, Hold Fast to Dreams
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Gary Price: Not every high school student who applies to college gets their first choice of schools and many students – and their parents – feel a sense of failure because of it. Some students aren’t even going to college, not because they lack the intelligence to get there, but because they can’t afford to go, or their high school counselors never find them a good match for their abilities and economic circumstances. We talked to two men who are well informed about each of these situations, and learned how parents, students and high schools can better assist college-age students in finding a good fit for higher education. First, Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times and author of the book, Where You Go Is Not Who’ll You’ll Be: An antidote to the college admissions mania. He says that he wanted to address the issue of students pinning all of their hopes on getting into an elite college because of the stress he’s seen if they don’t make it.
Frank Bruni: There’s a whole generation of kids who’ve been whipped into this state of high anxiety by the belief that if they don’t get into one of the most selective schools, they won’t have an enormous, profound and lasting advantage in life and they’ll, in fact, end up behind the 8-ball. And when I looked around me at the successful people I knew, many of them went to highly-selective schools, but many of them did not. They went to state universities, they went to schools that no one’s ever heard of except the graduates of those schools, and so I felt that we needed to disabuse this generation and their parents of this belief that all of the future hinged on getting into a handful of the most vaunted schools.
Price: If, as he said, many very successful people went to state schools and small colleges, why does the myth of the Ivy League and elite college education persist in society?
Bruni: A lot of it comes from the fact that we have very selective conversations about people’s success and the media is a very good example. When we write profiles of politicians like Ted Cruz, who went through the Ivy League– in his case Princeton and then Harvard Law – we mention that fact prominently and repeatedly. We do the same thing with corporate CEOs. But when we write profiles about or talk about people who didn’t go to those sorts of schools, we tend to leave their educational pedigree out of the conversation. And we thus create the impression that only a certain set of schools matters and only a certain set of schools explain later on success. But Chris Christie may have gotten where got because he went to the University of Delaware. The University of Florida may have as much to do with where Marco Rubio is today as Brown University has to do with Governor Bobby Jindal is. So we have a very selective conversation that leads to a warped view of reality.
Price: Often you’ll hear that going to an elite school will provide networking opportunities that can give a graduate advantages that a lesser-known college won’t. Bruni says that all schools – including high schools and state universities – can provide those advantages as well. But what about the cachet that an elite school such as Yale, or the University of Chicago, or MIT can give a student? Don’t people at the top of their careers in law, business and science tend to hire graduates who went to their schools?
Bruni: It happens in finance, it happens in management consulting. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m saying that it’s occurrence is not so intractable and widespread that if you don’t go to one of those schools you’re plumb out of luck. In my book, I profile no small number of people who did not go through the Ivy League and got to the exact places that people in the Ivy League yearn to get to, they just forged different paths. So my issue isn’t with the contention that you can get an advantage in those ways – you can – but it’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s not make or break, and we’re somehow communicating to a whole generation of parents and kids that it is make or break, be-all or end-all.
Price: Bruni says that students with their eye on an Ivy League or other elite schools shouldn’t dismiss them altogether, but they shouldn’t confine their search to just those institutions. They should also not take it personally if they aren’t accepted at their first-choice college. He says there are all sorts of reasons why Harvard, Yale, Cornell and the others choose the freshman classes that they do…and it’s not all about who’s the smartest.
Bruni: They are choosing a freshman class that meets their needs. Now most of those kids are excellent students, but many of them are top athletes in the sport that that college happens to feel that it needs to make sure it has enough people on the swim team, if it wants to have a great swim team. It needs to make sure it has enough people playing football, and it wants to have a competitive football team. It has to give serious consideration to legacy applicants whose parents or grandparents have given significant money to the school. It sometimes gives special consideration to people who may become donors in the future, who come from rich families where there’s an implicit process of donations in the future. They’re reserving certain slots for certain minorities that would otherwise be underrepresented on campus. In fact, if you go through the admitted class of a lot of these schools with a five- six- or seven-percent acceptance rate, you find that anywhere from 40- to 60-percent of the students had some sort of extra hook.
Price: Those low-income or minority students who get into elite colleges can have a tough time of it if the school doesn’t have the support structures in place to make them feel welcome. Joshua Steckel is a college counselor in a public school in Brooklyn, New York, and co-author of the book, Hold Fast to Dreams. He says that there are pitfalls to attending elite colleges for many of the students he wrote about.
Joshua Steckel: I think that for many students there continued to be day-to-day challenges to meet financial obligations; for many students of color or low-income students or first-generation to college students the campuses that were predominately white or affluent I think students felt often isolated, having to sustain daily micro-aggressions from their peers, often having to represent as the only person of color or only student of a certain kind in a classroom, I think the challenges were enormous and continue to be.
Price: He says most of his students aspire to continue their education after high school, but because of overworked counselors and a lack of support at their schools, many who want to go on with their education can’t.
Steckel: It is extremely unusual unfortunately for students and their families to have access to an adult in their schools who can support them in those ways. There’s an lot of different reasons for that, but the numbers are startling. Most counselors in most of our country’s schools have caseloads that are enormous, ranging on the average from 400 students to every counselor to a thousand students to every counselor in California. Of those counselors, it’s really rare for them to have had serious training in supporting students in finding sound college matches and in doing the work necessary to give them a good chance of success once they’re at college. And that’s a real problem.
Price: Even if they are planning on going to college, Steckel says that because of the lack of advisors in high school, some smaller institutions that have little name recognition aren’t even in the running for minority or low-income kids.
Steckel: Different colleges have made really strong commitments in bringing in low-income students or first-generation to college students or students of color, and I think that the missing link, again there, is for students to have access to college counselors and to advocates because I think that those are often places that they’re just totally off the radar for students. If you think of most of our kids coming into high school, when they think about college they’re not thinking about where they’ll go, they’re thinking about whether they’ll go. Their knowledge of what is actually out there in the landscape is really limited. Unfortunately, what happens is that it’s often colleges that are for-profit institutions that do the best job of marketing to this particular demographic, and students miss out on a lot of the other kinds of opportunities that are available for them because they don’t know.
Price: Steckel says that finding a good fit for a student is different in the high school that he works at than it is at a private high school. While a private school will try to find a college that matches the learning style and personality of a student, many public schools have different priorities.
Steckel: We think first about where a student is going to be admissible and that, in part, is about thinking about institutions that are working really hard to identify the strengths and qualities of character and values that our students are going to bring to campus. Then we’re thinking about identifying those places that we know are going to offer adequate funding. That is such a critical piece. And it’s also critical to point out that that stuff that we know before students apply, we know that before they get the financial aid package, we have a really clear sense of which institutions are able to make real funding commitments to students from families of very high need. And then third, we’re looking for institutions that we know have really robust support structures and are focused on ensuring that students of color, the first-gen college students, low-income kids who are going to come into an environment where they might be in the real minority, that they’re coming to a community that is working to think about how to help those students be valued on campus, feel integrated into campus and have ways to really contribute to campus life.
Price: He says he’d like to see reforms in the ways colleges work with students like his. Sometimes, he says, success in college can hinge on just having subway fare, enough to eat and money for books and supplies, and he’d like to see more help given to low-income students in those areas. Steckel says college admissions officers should also focus less on test scores and statistics and more on other indicators of promise and potential. Finally, he thinks colleges should strive for more diversity in their faculties and staffs. Frank Bruni says that parents and students who are hoping to get into that elite college shouldn’t pin all of their self-esteem and sense of success on being accepted. After all, isn’t college – any good college – what you make of it?
Bruni: It’s entirely what you make of it. I mean the real tragedy here is that we’re having certain kinds of communities in America, and these are communities that already blessed that tend to be somewhat privileged or very privileged, we’re having this intense, exhausting, anxiety-ridden conversation about how to get into college. We should take all of that energy and time and redirect it to a discussion of how to best use college, because when I look at the successful people I know and that I’ve interviewed by the hundreds over the years, I don’t see any one set of colleges in their background. What I do see is all of them use college or the chapter of life that encompassed college in a way that was very smart, that made them bigger people, that made them smarter people. And so, yes, college is entirely what you make of it but we lost sight of that by spending all of our time and energy and anxiety on getting into college.
Price: You can read about many notable people who DIDN’T get into an elite college and how they turned their educational experience into success in Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, available at stores and online. He invites listeners to visit his website at FrankBrunibooks.com. To learn about the hurdles low-income, minority and first-generation to college students face in finding a college to attend, pick up Joshua Steckel’s book, Hold Fast to Dreams, also in stores, online and on the new press.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.