As nearly every ambitious high school student knows, failure to gain admission to the Ivy League or to one of the nation's other top schools translates into second-class status for life. Indeed, the arrival of the much-anticipated college admissions office envelope represents a moment of truth—a judgment day of sorts when the talented, the impressive, and the worthy, are sorted from the merely average; and hopeful youngsters learn whether they are destined for greatness or for unremarkable, middling lives.
Given their obsessive studiousness, today's achievement-oriented teenagers tend to be well informed about many subjects. They may be better informed on more matters, in fact, than any generation that has preceded them. But as Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook argues in his October article, "Who Needs Harvard?," the conventional wisdom on college admissions, about which anxious teenagers work so hard to inform themselves, is for the most part dead wrong.
Easterbrook points out that, devastating as it may feel to have to head off to Rice or Harvey Mudd come freshman year after having dreamed of Stanford, in the scheme of things, the difference between attending a prestigious name-brand college or a lesser-known second-tier college is miniscule.
Consider the United States Senate ... Fully half of U.S. senators are graduates of public universities, and many went to "states"—among them Chico State, Colorado State, Iowa State, Kansas State ... Or consider the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 corporations: only four went to elite schools ... Or consider Rhodes scholars: this year only sixteen of the thirty-two American recipients hailed from elite colleges. Steven Spielberg was rejected by the prestigious film schools at USC and UCLA; he attended Cal State Long Beach, and seems to have done all right for himself.
What's more, Easterbrook explains, the number of colleges offering top-notch educations has expanded in recent years, so that whereas not long ago students had to compete for spots at just fifty or so schools in order to obtain an excellent education, today there are nearly two-hundred first-rate schools to choose from—with space for every smart, hardworking student who wants one. All of which means that the college admissions process need not be the confidence-shattering ordeal that so many young people find it to be today. The hard part, Easterbook suggests, may be getting that message to sink in:
Grown-up land is full of Yale graduates who are unhappy failures and Georgia Tech grads who run big organizations or have a great sense of well-being. But teens can't be expected to understand this. All they can be sure of is that colleges will accept or reject them, and it's like being accepted or rejected for a date—only much more intense, and their parents know all the details.
Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic, a senior editor of The New Republic, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of many books, including The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (2003), Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt (1999), and A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1996). He is a 1976 graduate of Colorado College.
We spoke by telephone on August 25.
You note that ironically, the obsession with getting into a name brand school has reached a fever pitch just as—in terms of the education one gets and the life prospects afforded—it's started to matter much less where one goes to school. What do you think accounts for the ratcheting up of the anxiety level at this point? Does it represent some kind of last gasp of a dying form of elitism?
The obsession with brand names and status is rising in all categories of society. It's partly a function of affluence. People are more concerned now about having the right clothes and listening to the right bands and carrying the right handbags and that sort of thing. And this is happening at the same time that the quality of the clothes and handbags and so forth that aren't the "right" ones has risen. A no-name Wal-mart piece of apparel today is of much higher quality than the similar thing was a generation ago. Yet people are more obsessed than ever with buying from Old Navy, or whatever the hip place is.
As society gets wealthier, there are simply more and more people who can care about status. A hundred years ago, maybe only five or ten percent of the country had the financial means to care. At the beginning of the postwar era it was maybe twenty-five percent. Now, seventy-five percent of the country makes enough money to care. And, among many other things, this focus on status has been projected onto the question of where people go to college.
You point out that a significant number of students who graduated from Colorado College at around the same time you did have gone on to impressive, interesting careers. And you note that that also holds true for students from other good small colleges that rarely make it to the top of high-achievers' desperate-to-get-in lists. Yet applicants today who don't get into a brand name school imagine that their futures are ruined. Why do you think there's such blindness to the reality that many of the most talented and accomplished adults around aren't products of the most prestigious colleges? And why do these kids' parents seem not to have learned from their own life experiences in that regard?
I think parents are key. The successful boomers who control the nation's desirable suburbs and drive the right cars and eat in the right places are all convinced that college was the absolute formative thing that got them where they are. In a general sense, they're right; they got to live in great places like Bethesda, Maryland, and Winnetka, Illinois, because they went to college and studied and were well prepared at a moment when the economy was shifting from an exertion economy to a knowledge economy. But it's education generally—not any specific college—that did it for them. The boomers misanalyze the situation and think, Oh, such-and-such person must have gone to Harvard to get where he is. But the relevant fact isn't that he went to Harvard, but that he got a good education somewhere. And a good education is now available at a hundred, maybe two hundred colleges in the United States.
The college counselors I interviewed told me that half the parents they counsel talk as if it's them applying to college. They want to be validated by saying, "See, I did so great in life that my kid got into Stanford." Well, it's wonderful if your kid gets into Stanford, but it's not a judgment on you—or at least it shouldn't be. Of course, it's an open secret among college admission officers that an awful lot of baby boomer parents today are writing their children's application essays. But if any parents are reading this interview, I'll tell you: college admission officers know about this, and they're very good at detecting which essays were written by the parents. And that's points subtracted from your kid's application—so don't do it!