Episode 158: Does the College Matter?

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This is the second episode in our new series, Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because, as we said last week, we always do some episodes about college decision making in April, for obvious reasons.

1. Isn’t This Counterintuitive?

Every year at this time, pundits and educators write articles and op-ed pieces about how it doesn’t matter if your kid didn’t get into an Ivy League school, how admissions at top schools is an insane process that turns down thousands of perfectly qualified students, and how, in the end, he or she will still turn out fine.  Of course, that is basically true, and everyone knows it.  For a great take on this issue, go back and listen to Episode 121 from last year, which quotes extensively from an article by writer Michael Winerip, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The New York Times on April 29, 2007!  It could have been written yesterday and is probably more true today than it was when it was written 11 years ago.

But does the choice of which college to send your kid to really matter as little as some people say?  Because although your kid might not have a choice of one of the top 20 colleges in the U.S., that leaves a lot of other ones–thousands, to be exact.  Are they virtually interchangeable?  Is one just as good as another so why spend more?

The advice we always give–and the advice we gave again to one parent last week in Episode 157?is simply this:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got admitted to, even if it costs a little more or is farther away than you had wanted or is not what you had imagined for your kid.  But that advice is clearly not everyone’s view, so let’s look at the other side.

2. It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go to College?

“TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture,” according to its own website.  Well, one of those leading voices is evidently William Stixrud, co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, with Ned Johnson.  The title of his piece in TIME Ideas is “It’s Time To Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College.”  Well, that is a bold statement–bolder than most.  Let’s take a look at what he wrote early in that article:

. . . [W]hy don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. (quoted from the article)

Well, all of this is true.  Yes, there are many roads to success.  Yes, many different colleges can get you there, if you need college at all.  And yet, does that really mean most parents can or will take the position that it doesn’t matter where their kids go to college?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think they should.  Because while there are many roads to success and while many colleges or no college at all can get you there, most people also believe that a great college–or a great college match–for a kid can only be a plus as that kid heads into his or her future.  I don’t know many parents–if any at all?who would try to convince their own kids to turn down college and suggest that their kids try to make it on their own instead, even if Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg managed to do it.

So, let’s see what else Mr. Stixrud has to say:

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college–that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth–giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student–increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.  (quoted from the article)

Well, I am all for telling kids the truth.  I do want kids to understand their options, to broaden those options, and to encourage kids to pursue those options, regardless of their levels of motivation or their GPAs.  I do want kids to have a realistic view of the world and of their place in it.

Nonetheless, I am struck by data on the other side of this argument.  Almost two years ago, way back in Episode 67, we interviewed our colleague (and my fellow Cornell alum) Harold Levy, the smart and savvy executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.  At that time, the Foundation had co-authored, with The Century Foundation, an insightful report entitled True Merit:  Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.  We had talked about the report even earlier, back in Episode 59, and I still remember some of the statistics that the report presented.  For example:

  • Only 23 percent of high-achieving, low-income students apply to a selective school, but 48 percent of high-achieving, high-income students do so.
  • High-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as high-achieving students from the poorest families (24 percent compared to 8 percent).
  • 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders graduated from the same 12 selective colleges and universities.

So, it does seem to matter to wealthy families that their high-achieving kids go to selective colleges, and I wish that high-achieving kids from low-income families had the same support to help them get to those same selective colleges.  And I wish that those selective colleges would try harder to provide that support and outreach.  Because as most of us realize in this real world, it does matter where you go to college.  Just ask the 49 percent of corporate industry leaders and 50 percent of government leaders who went to the same 12 selective colleges.

Of course, we are not advocating that parents or high school staff  put an unreasonable or dangerous amount of pressure on kids.  No one wants to make kids overanxious, fearful, and downright sad in their last years of high school.

Maybe our message today is really more for parents than for kids, and it is the exact same message we gave in our last episode:  Send your kid to the best college he or she got into?whether that’s an Ivy League university, a public flagship university, a small liberal arts college, or a private university.  It’s a good short-term decision and, very likely, the best long-term decision.  If you don’t agree, give me a call and let’s chat.

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