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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Episode 157: Thinking Through College Acceptances

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

This is the first episode in our new series, fondly entitled Decision Time Again.  It’s “again” for us because we always do some episodes about college decision making at this time of year, and it seems that the decisions just keep get harder and harder each year for all of you parents and your kids.  Of course, we know that it might be your first decision time, and we are wishing you the best of luck!

1. A Case from the Real World

So, here is something that happened last week:  It is a case from the real world.  I had a great conversation on the phone with a loyal listener to our podcast and reader of our books, who wanted some advice about her son’s big decision.  Let’s call her Betty (the names have been changed to protect the innocent, though I would really love to give her credit for how well she is thinking through this decision).  First of all, I want to thank her for being so complimentary of our work.  She explained that she did not go to university in the U.S., so she found our explanation of higher education here to be especially helpful.  I also want to note that Betty lives in California, which justifies the name of our podcast, USACollegeChat.  We have tried hard to reach parents from coast to coast, and we are truly happy that it seems to be working.

Let me start by saying that Betty has done everything right.  As she wrote about her son in an email to me, “He had a lower GPA, but a good SAT score, and has been very fortunate to get into almost all of the schools he applied to, partly thanks to your advice about putting together a realistic list of schools, including a few stretches and some safety schools.”  And as a result, her son now has a choice of a variety of colleges that he has been admitted to:  public and private, large and small, North and South and East and Midwest, selective and less selective, liberal arts colleges and true universities.  Here are his choices:  the University of New Hampshire, the University of Pittsburgh, Miami University (of Ohio), Indiana University, St. Olaf College, Elon University, George Mason University, and American University.

Betty’s question was, quite simply, where should he go.  Betty told me that her son is interested in international relations, with a focus on Europe (where Betty is from originally) and would like to spend some time studying abroad and some time in Washington, D.C.  This week, they are going on a second round of college visits to see the colleges he has been accepted by that he hasn’t seen yet (as we recommend, whenever possible, visit after the acceptances so you can save a bit of money by not visiting colleges your child does not get admitted to).

I proceeded to talk through the list of acceptances with her and came down in favor of American University, which was the last college her son had heard from.  I told Betty that, if he had not been admitted to American, I would have advised him to choose Indiana University–because, as she knew from listening to our episodes, we love public flagship universities; because it has a fine reputation; because it has many study abroad opportunities; and because it has a School of Global and International Studies, where her son was accepted into its version of an honors program.  However, given her son’s interest in studying in D.C., American seemed like the better choice.  Its reputation is excellent, it has nationwide visibility, and its location in D.C.–with all of the opportunities there might be for international-related activities, internships, and part-time jobs–seemed to me to outweigh the pluses of a flagship university campus in exurban Bloomington, Indiana.

Betty then asked me a string of questions, which were important and relevant to her son’s decision.  It was a little bit like a “greatest hits” of issues we have dealt with in past episodes, and she did a good job of recounting them and questioning me about them.  For example, she noted that American does not guarantee housing after freshman year, and she worried about what housing might be like in D.C. if her son had to get his own.  I agreed that the lack of a housing guarantee in D.C. especially might not be ideal, but that it would not keep me from sending a child to American, given its other advantages.  I assured her that kids move off campus all the time and that he might be able to stay on campus anyway.

Next, Betty noted that American’s graduation rate was not as high as other colleges on his list.  A good point, I said, but I would be okay with that if I were relatively sure my son would stay on track and graduate on time.  Besides, I said, American is a great school, regardless of its graduation rate.  Betty commented that her son had always done better when challenged, and I agreed that is often the case and that her son would definitely be challenged at American both by the university and by his classmates to do his best.  I did add that I would give him a firm lecture about that before he left!

Next, Betty asked my opinion about a gap year, which her son had brought up, but not recently.  She remembered our episode about it and, coming from Europe where gap years are more common, was not totally against it.  I repeated that all the research said gap years were great choices, and yet I would still tell Betty to send her son directly to college.  He already seems to know what he wants to do, and he does not seem to need to spend a year figuring that out.  I suggested that he might take his “gap year” after his undergraduate education and before his intended graduate work, when he might really be able to do something significant abroad.

Finally, Betty wondered if her son would be better off in a slightly less challenging college, where he could potentially get better grades in preparation for getting into a top-tier graduate school, where he hoped to pursue international affairs or business.  This was my favorite question of those she asked.  And I gave the answer we have always given here at USACollegeChat:  Send him to the best school he got into.  In my opinion, that is American.  I commented that plans change, things happen, and graduate school might not be his choice four years from now.  Why suboptimize his undergraduate education because you are hoping for the best possible graduate education?  What if that graduate education never comes, and you just wasted a great undergraduate opportunity–for nothing?

I feel so strongly about his advice, and I seem to give it a lot.  (I am not talking about Betty now, by the way.  Betty and her son are going to be fine.)  But I do see parents thinking that a mediocre public education is fine at the undergraduate level because it is a way to save money for a top-quality private graduate school or medical school or law school.  Well, as many people have said and claimed credit for, tomorrow is promised to no one.  Please, parents, let your kid to take the opportunity to get an outstanding undergraduate education if it’s offered, even if it costs a little more.  No one can predict where your kid will be in four years, what he or she will want to do then, and whether he or she will have the grades and test scores to get into a phenomenal graduate school.  As the Romans said, carpe diem–seize the day.

2. What You Should Do Right Now

So, in this episode, I wanted to give you a firsthand look at how we think through things once those acceptances come in.  If you have a question like Betty’s about your kid, please drop me an email.  All the advice is free, and you don’t have to take it.  But let’s chat.  Why do you think we call it USACollegeChat?

By the way, if you want more general advice, feel free to go back and listen to the advice we gave last year and the year before.  It’s still quite relevant.  Try Episode 114 from last year and Episode 69, Episode 70, and Episode 71 from the year before.  They never get old!

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Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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