For a certain stratum of the American middle class, a college acceptance letter is the culminating moment in the lives of children—and their parents. But is our obsession with college rankings and prestige overblown? Have we lost sight of what matters? And have our universities, in their quest for exclusivity, done the same? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni visits Zócalo with Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow to ask what universities are for. In advance of their discussion, below is an excerpt from Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.
Peter Hart didn’t try for Harvard, Princeton or any of the Ivies. That wasn’t the kind of student he’d been at New Trier High School, which serves several affluent suburbs north of Chicago. Nearly all of its roughly 1,000 graduating seniors each year go on to higher education, and nearly all of them know, from where they stand among their peers and from the forecasts of guidance counselors, what sort of college they can hope to attend. A friend of Peter’s was ranked in the top five of their class; she set her sights on Yale—and ended up there. Peter was ranked somewhere around 300: not great but wholly respectable considering the caliber of students at New Trier. He aimed for the University of Michigan or maybe the special undergraduate business school at the University of Illinois.
Both rejected him.
He went to Indiana University instead, and arrived there feeling neither defeated nor exhilarated. He was simply determined to make the most of the place and to begin plotting a career and planning an adult life.
Right away he noticed a difference. At New Trier, a public school posh enough to pass for private, he’d always had a sense of himself as someone somewhat ordinary, at least in terms of his studies. He lacked his peers’ swagger and ready-made eloquence. He wasn’t especially quick to raise his hand, to offer an opinion, to seize a position of leadership. At Indiana, though, the students in his freshman dorm and in his freshman classes weren’t as uniformly poised and showily gifted as the New Trier kids had been, and his self-image went through a transformation.
“I really felt like I was a competent person,” he told me when I interviewed him in June 2014, shortly after he’d turned 28. “It was confidence-building.” He thrived during that first year, getting a 3.95 grade point average, which earned him admission into an honors program for undergraduate business majors. And he thrived during the rest of his time at Indiana, drawing the attention of professors, becoming vice president of a business fraternity on campus, cobbling together the capital to start his own tiny real estate enterprise—he bought, fixed up, and rented small houses to fellow students—and finagling a way, off-campus, to get interviews with several of the top-drawer consulting firms that trawled for recruits at the Ivies but often bypassed schools like Indiana. Upon graduation, he took a plum job in the Chicago office of the Boston Consulting Group, where he recognized one of the other new hires: the friend from New Trier who’d gone to Yale. Traveling a more gilded path, she’d arrived at the very same destination.
Peter worked for three years with the Boston Consulting Group and another two with a private equity firm in Manhattan. When I talked with him, he was between his first and second year at Harvard’s graduate business school. Yes, he said, many of his Harvard classmates had undergraduate degrees fancier than his; no, he said, he didn’t feel that his Indiana education put him at any disadvantage. Besides which, he and most of the others in the Harvard MBA program had been out of college for as long as they’d been in it. What they’d learned in the workplace since graduation had more bearing on their assurance and performance at Harvard than did anything picked up in any class, let alone the name of their alma mater.
The main, lasting relevance of Indiana, he told me, was the way it had turned him into a bolder, surer person, allowing him to discover and nurture a mettle that hadn’t been teased out before. “I got to be the big fish in a small pond,” he said. Now, if he wanted to, he could swim with the sharks.
Jenna Leahy, 26, went through the college admissions process two years after Peter did. She, too, was applying from a charmed school: in her case, Phillips Exeter Academy, which was less than a mile from her family’s New Hampshire home and which she attended as a day student. She wasn’t at the very top of her class but she had as many A’s as B’s. At Exeter, one of the most storied prep schools in America, that was nothing to sneeze at. She was also a captain of the cross-country team and active in so many campus organizations that when graduation day rolled around, she received one of the most coveted prizes, given to a student who’d brought special distinction to the academy.
Jenna had one conspicuous flaw: a score on the math portion of the SAT that was in the low 600s. Many selective colleges cared more than ever about making sure that each new freshman class had high SAT scores, because that was one of the criteria by which U.S. News & World Report ranked schools in its annual survey, the influence of which had risen exponentially since its dawn in the 1980s. In fact, the college on which Jenna set her sights, Claremont McKenna, cared so much that its dean of admissions would later be exposed for fabricating and inflating that statistic.
Jenna applied early to Claremont McKenna. And was turned down.
She was stunned. She couldn’t quite believe it. And partly because of that, she didn’t sink into a funk but moved quickly to tweak her dreams and widen her net, sending applications to Georgetown University, Emory University, the University of Virginia and Pomona College, which is one of Claremont McKenna’s sister schools. She threw in a few more, to have some insurance, though she was relatively certain that she wouldn’t need it.
In early spring the news came. Georgetown said no. Emory said no. No from Virginia. No from Pomona. She felt like some kind of magnet for rejection: Earlier that semester, her first serious boyfriend had broken up with her. He was a sophomore at Stanford, the sort of school she was now being told she simply wasn’t good enough for. What was she good enough for? What in the world was going on? Many of her Exeter classmates were bound for the Ivies and their ilk, and they didn’t seem to her any more capable than she. Was it because they were legacy cases, from families with more money than hers?
All she knew was that they had made the cut and she hadn’t.
“I felt so worthless,” she told me. “It was a very, very depressing time.”
As she remembers it, she was left essentially with two options. One was Scripps College: another of Claremont McKenna’s sister schools, though not quite as desired as Pomona. The other was the University of South Carolina. It wanted her badly enough that it offered her a significant scholarship. “But that wasn’t enough for me,” she said. “I wanted a name. I wanted some prestige.” That was the immediate legacy of the application process. She was determined to grab whatever bragging rights she could.
But there was another, better legacy, which came later. Once she got through the summer, crossed the country to Southern California, beheld how gorgeous the Scripps campus was and saw how well she fit in there, she realized not only that the most crushing chapter of her life was in the past but that it hadn’t crushed her. Not even close. Actually, it had helped her separate the approval that others did or didn’t give her from what she believed—no, knew—about herself.
One day she happened to sign up for a day trip from Scripps to Tijuana, Mexico, to help do some painting and other charitable work in an especially impoverished neighborhood. When she got there, she recalled, “I held a baby who could barely breathe, and the mother didn’t have the money to take the baby to the doctor, and you could literally see the United States on the other side of the border. I was just blown away.” The moment stayed with her, and during her sophomore year, she applied for a grant that would give her the funds necessary to live in Tijuana for the summer and work with indigent children there. She got it.
A pattern emerged. “I applied for things fearlessly,” she said, “because I knew now that I was worth something even if I wasn’t accepted.” Rejection was arbitrary. Rejection was survivable.
She entered a contest at her school to spend a weekend among the Mexican poor with Jimmy Carter, and she was chosen. She put in a request to study abroad in Senegal and then in Paris, and was permitted to do both. After graduation she went to work for Teach for America and, toward the end of her time with the organization, she sought a special fellowship in school administration that was typically given only to educators with more experience. She nonetheless received it, and later got a federal grant to write the 300-plus pages of the charter for a public elementary school she was proposing to start in Phoenix, where she now lives. That school, serving children from low-income families, opened in August 2014. Jenna is its cofounder and its director of students and operations.
“I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” she told me. “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.”
Is Peter’s example so remarkable? I don’t think so. People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates. The hothouse of secondary school favors only some.
And Jenna’s arc isn’t unusual in the least. The specific details, the proper nouns: Those are hers and hers alone. But for every person whose contentment and fulfillment come from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Life is defined by little snags and big setbacks; success is determined by the ability to distinguish between the two and rebound from either. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.
So why do so many Americans—anxious parents, addled children—treat the college admissions process as if it were precisely that?