HRP’s Books of the Month — June, Part 1: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni lays out a remarkable case against the ridiculous nature of college admissions programs and the dangerous pathways it leads our children on. Central to the book’s argument is that U.S. News and World Report, as well as other various ranking systems, have tarnished the admissions process and made our students hone-in on the wrong prospects. Of course, most educators are familiar with the errors of these rankings, but Bruni’s work is an all-encompassing destruction of the system, with crushing numbers of tangible evidence against these processes.

Where You Go is not only a recommended book for teachers, but for students and parents as well. Bruni tackles college rankings, the overblown college admissions process, as well as “next step” education that permeates our culture. In his words,

“…the admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit…the work that he or she puts into [college], the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended.”

This deconstruction of the rankings process is done in numerous ways. In part, Bruni wants to prove that because of these reports, certain schools have been measured as better than others with little to no regard on their actual educational value. As a result, students have become obsessive over entering high-ranked schools in light of their own best interest. Simply stated,

“[the problem with] Money, Forbes, Payscale and U.S. News rankings is that there are all sorts of other lists and all manner of other measurements that get little attention and that, in some cases, communicate information that’s equally or more relevant.”

Bruni outlines the schools with the most Fulbright Scholars (Pitzer, Smith, Oberlin, Pomona, College of the Holy Cross, WIlliams, Occidental, Vassar, Bates, and Bowdoin), as well as study abroad programs for worldly experiences, diverse student populations for more perspectives, those who finance education (not just buildings or salaries), Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Prize winners, the majority of successful politicians, the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs — and more in an exhaustive list of factual data. Furthermore, ranking data doesn’t include the quality of education, job placement rates, or happiness. This, in-turn, heavily mirrors school ranking data for secondary schools nationwide, which focuses on standardized testing data and absence statistics above all else.

And because our students lack a full picture of this situation, many are being sold on a lie. As stated in the book, these ranking scales: “…unnecessarily shrink the pool of schools that kids consider. In constructing a hierarchy of colleges, they give short shift to the multitude and diversity of them, and they imply that certain schools are better for everyone, when they may only be better for particular students with particular dispositions.” Although Bruni is focused on undergraduate admissions to 4 year universities, this methodology could be applied to any college seeker — including community and vocational schools. So many students have equated certain experiences and educational systems with “success” — whether that be monetarily or prestige — that they have overlooked where they fit in best to make themselves succeed.

To drive this point home, one of my favorite excerpts was from a former Yale admissions college officer, who went to work as a college placement counselor in high school. After watching students bring her lists of carefully selected, “high-ranking” colleges, she stated,

“‘These new lists always seem to correlate with the rankings in U.S. News. Students tend to discard excellent and appropriate colleges ranked lower in U.S. News and to add ‘stretch’ schools that are unlikely to offer them admission.”

With this comes a greater issue of the cultural narrative our students play out. Taken to the extreme, in an effort to be placed at the highest ranked schools, families will rig the system. In one circumstance a mother described her rationale of developing a fake essay entry to Yale:

“‘India?’ she suggested. ‘Africa? She hadn’t worked it out. But if Yale might be impressed by an image of her son with a small spade, large shovel, rake or jackhammer in his chafed hands, she was poised to find a third-world setting that would produce that sweaty and ennobling tableau.”

Although this is obviously not the norm, it reflects a greater cultural anxiety our students have to get into the college they’d like. The rat race of education. Consistently our students are placed in situations to compete against one another, come out the “best”, and work their hardest for the “next step.” College preparatory schools exist all the way into elementary, guaranteeing admittance to the highest ranked establishments. Ignoring that these ranking systems are vastly inaccurate, the fact our students are so intertwined with this system is a major problem. Students are sacrificing being themselves, taking time to reflect, engaging in passionate activities that make them happy — they are, quite literally, becoming less human. Put dutifully by Bruni,

“…the alumni of elite institutions were less clear about why they were at Harvard and what they wanted from it. For them it was the next box in a series that they were dutifully checking over the course of their lives.”

A series of checkmarks to live by is analyzed by high school senior Rachel Wolfe in her class documentary, “Losing Ourselves.” Adolescents don’t know why they do things — they just want to reach the next step. They develop a mindset that cares about getting ahead, no matter the cost instead of a love of learning or living. In addition, this doesn’t end after admission. Students continue on this rat race throughout their lives. The Good Project, a team of researchers at Harvard, found that: “…though students enter college with a diverse set of interests, by senior year, most of them seem to focus on a narrow set of jobs. The culture at Harvard seems to be dominated by the pursuit of high earning, prestigious jobs, especially in the consulting industries.”

That being said, it isn’t all about prestige. A huge factor contributing to this are fear and anxiety. Our society shows increasing signs of income equality — therefore, students want to ensure they’re those that “have” rather than “have-not.” It’s difficult to obtain a job without a college degree — heck, it’s difficult to obtain one with a college degree. With this in mind, many want to ensure employability via an elite education.

However, Bruni’s writings implement a much darker view of the world this has created. In one circumstance:

“A group of students gathered in the library at a public school in an affluent suburb of New York note that the high-achieving kids in the Model United Nations Club are away on a trip and joke that it would be a blessing if the bus crashed, because it would free up room in the “cum laude” society, reserved for the top 10 percent of the class.”

A narrow pathway envisioned towards success dangers our children’s minds. The story that connected most to me was that of “Matt” — a high school junior that looked perfect on paper to most colleges: stellar SAT scores (with help from an expensive tutor), top of his class, played an instrument, was on the varsity baseball team, a member of almost all honor societies, and participated in 100+ hours of community service. He applied to Brown, Yale, and Princeton and was rejected from all of them. In response, he had an emotional breakdown and sunk into a depression — despite his parents encouraging him every step of the way. They wanted him to be happy. Not only does this connection with elitism showcase a danger to our youth’s psyche, it also demonstrates how students perceive college admissions on their own.

This story, among many others, led Bruni to offer some advice:

“Your control over the outcome [of getting into a specific college] is very, very limited, and that outcome says nothing definitive about your talent or potential. To lose sight of that is to buy into, and essentially endorse, a game that’s spun wildly out of control,” adding, “…the media’s focus on such a limited number of acceptable outcomes, coupled with its attention to minutely detailed instructions for achieving them, suggests that life yields to meticulous recipes. That’s a comforting thought but a fraudulent one.”

The next question then is: what does make someone successful? If these rankings aren’t accurate, what should we go by? The answer is messy. There, as Bruni oftentimes states, isn’t a formula. Just like how the latest buzzword in education isn’t going to “fix” a class, a certain school isn’t going to “change” a person. It’s all about a variety of experiences, opportunities, placements, and luck. In fact, the majority of Where You Go is about various people’s journeys into prestigious positions — none of which are the same and often have nothing to do with a specific school. As Bruni states,

“…the admissions mania perverts the true meaning and value of hard work, encouraging such effort in the designated service of a specifically defined goal, as a pragmatic bridge from point A to point B, not as an act of passion, not as a lifetime habit, not as a renewable resource, which is what it should be and how it bears the ripest, sweetest fruit.”

Or as Steve Schmidt, chief campaign strategist for the McCain campaign in 2008 and political pundit exclaims,

“[Students are] looking for you to give them a formula: ‘On Day 246 of your career, you should do this.’ I said to one kid, ‘I’m going to give you a piece of advice. You should go and get a job working on a sailboat in the Caribbean for six months. Or maybe work behind a bar’…Life isn’t reduced to a formula. Luck enters into it. It’s a chance event…what mattered most in the end was a true, deep attachment to whatever you’re making, whatever you’re selling, whatever you’re doing.”

Bruni then creates an incredible argument on why public universities are just as great an experience as elite schools — it’s all about the person attending and what they are truly looking for. Taking this introspective look that goes beyond face-value, manipulative rankings, creates a world of opportunity vastly more encompassing than the often-trodden path. For any educator who seeks to inform students about their future, worries about “college prep”, or simply wants a better argument against the U.S. News and World Report — this is a great work to read.