College, Redefined

In an increasingly expensive higher education system, where you went to college is less and less important than how talented you are.


Soon after graduating from Brown University, I became a high school teacher in a Bay Area suburb. When asked, I’d share that I’d attended Brown, and more often than not would get a quizzical look or head shake. “Brown? Huh. Where is that? Never heard of it.” Due to financial and familial concerns, when college was a goal, it meant acceptance to the University of California system for most of my students and their families. I learned fast that the degree from a fancy institution that told me so much about myself did not automatically confer much value in actual real life. While other lessons emerged – about privilege, access, elitism and the plain fact that we live in a huge country within which many people tend to stay put – I realized that I had derived far too much of my self-worth from association with the institution I’d attended.

Where I’d gone was not who I was: this was one of the key insights that helped me become a functional adult. Now I’m the parent of kids who are going to be figuring out how higher education will help them achieve their life goals (as opposed to defining who they are). Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, has served as a useful reinforcement to the perspective I gained in California in my 20s.

Many families in the United States aspire for their children to attend college, though not all students head directly to higher education from high school. The most recent data indicates that 65.4% of Rhode Island’s high school graduates attend college right away (the national average is 65.9%). A similar percentage of these students complete their four-year degrees within six years (or two-year degrees within three years), though far fewer students of color, who are also more frequently first-generation college-goers, do so. All this data and more tells us that college attendance and completion are not a given for many. For those who do attend and complete college, most aim for an institution of higher education that’s decent, affordable, often close to home and not necessarily considered elite.

However, a smaller number of students and their families choose to emphasize admission to a small set of elite colleges, of which Brown, with its admission rate of 8.5% of all applications, is but one. While the advice that the book’s title dispenses doesn’t apply to all of us, it does apply to many who live and work in or near this university or others like it. Some of us – parents of high school seniors – are now entering the anxiety home stretch, with acceptance and rejection letters starting to arrive. For us, Bruni succinctly defuses the college admissions mania, using data and many anecdotes to demonstrate that high school students who aspire to a meaningful higher education experience actually have a surprisingly wide range of choices that may well not include the most elite schools. In addition to looking at the trajectories of specific students, some of whom “made it” into the Ivies or equivalents and some of whom did not, Bruni spends time with college admissions staffers who take pains to emphasize the extreme arbitrariness of choosing among a mass of similarly qualified young people for a handful of spots in a college class.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be shines brightest in its estimation of fit, rather than elite status, as a key factor for college choice. Bruni urges students to consider options carefully, to look at colleges that offer programs and opportunities that will serve their long-term goals, even if this means getting out of their comfort zones. In this counsel to students and their families to think through their own needs and values, rather than mindlessly pursuing status and prestige, Bruni’s advice takes on meaning to a much larger audience. While not all of us, nor all of our children, will be obsessed with attending a highly competitive university, nearly all of us at one time or another have lost a grip on ourselves as we focus too narrowly on that which confers prestige. When we can see the intrinsic value of our children, rather than deriving reflected glory from their accomplishments, we help them stay connected to who they really are. Nothing shines brighter, or opens more doors in life, than the confidence that results when we believe in our children because of who they are.

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