Crying in the Kitchen Over Princeton

Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook on why the college-admissions process need not be a confidence-shattering ordeal

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.

Sage Stossel

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!

Several of the articles in this year's Atlantic college admissions section comment on the fact that which applicants get into the most elite schools is becoming more arbitrary because so many kids with perfect grades (boosted in part by grade inflation), and excellent SAT performance (boosted by the recent "recentering" of test scores) are all applying to the same schools. So presumably that means that many of the brightest and most high-achieving kids are aren't ending up getting into brand name schools and are instead having to head off to second-tier colleges.

It's mainly a matter of supply and demand. Every year for the last twenty or thirty years the number of high school seniors graduating with excellent credentials has increased—owing in part to population growth, and in part to the ever-increasing emphasis on education. And partly, yes, it's that the SAT re-centering makes everybody's scores appear higher. Twenty-five or thirty years ago the number of kids who got double-perfect on the SAT was pretty small. But now there are nearly a thousand every year. So there are at least twice as many high school seniors who look on paper like they're qualified for the top twenty-five schools–the colleges I refer to in the article as the "Gotta-Get-Ins." Yet the number of slots at those schools has not changed. So that means that every passing year, there are more kids who are qualified to get into Brown who don't. Which means there are more kids who don't get the acceptance letter and who sit sobbing in the family kitchen with the parents looking on grief-stricken, as if some huge disaster has just come into their lives.

But if you look at the research, that supposed disaster doesn't matter at all. If you couldn't get into one of the top hundred or two hundred colleges, that would be a disaster for smart kid—a serious life setback. But that isn't going to happen to any smart kid, or any kid who did well in high school. There are a hundred to two hundred schools that provide excellent educations and which cannot be statistically differentiated in terms of life outcomes from Harvard or Yale. So if you end up going to Hamilton or Whitman or Colorado College or one of two hundred other schools, you're going to be just fine.

Do you think the fact that so many top students are starting to fill the ranks of those second-tier schools in itself helps improve the perceived status of those schools? Sort of in the same way an underrated neighborhood starts to become chic as the yuppies spill over into it?

Yes. I think that's already happening, and it's going to happen to a lot more schools. Colleges like Pomona, for example, or Washington University in St. Louis, which twenty years ago would not have been considered the most desirable, have become incredibly popular, simply because word has gotten out about how good they are. There are other schools that will also catapult to the top soon. Just a few that pop to mind are Davidson, Harvey Mudd, Washington and Lee… One of the main theses that my piece sets out is that fifty years ago there were really only ten or twenty excellent schools. But in the last fifty years the top schools have changed very little, while the next hundred to two-hundred schools have improved dramatically. If you went to Illinois Wesleyan years back you wouldn't have gotten an almost Harvard-quality education. But if you go to Illinois Wesleyan today, the education you'll receive is almost the same as what you'd get at Harvard. The same is true for Hamilton and Skidmore and a lot of other schools. They've improved dramatically, and gradually the word is getting out.

You spoke with several college-admissions counselors who said that kids today are devastated if they don't get into a prestigious school. Do you get the impression that that feeling of failure has any kind of lasting effect on these students' trajectories?

I would assume that most kids get over it. If you don't get an acceptance letter from Dartmouth, you're devastated and crushed and you sit in the kitchen and cry. And then you end up going to Middlebury or Mt. Holyoke or Notre Dame or Rice, and you get a great education. You might start off there with a feeling of inadequacy because you didn't get into Dartmouth. And whether there's lasting psychological harm I don't know. But my guess is that most kids get over it pretty quickly. The sense we've created that the college admissions letter is the moment when your entire life is being judged—when you find out whether you're going to be successful or not—is just silly. Because the research shows that it hardly matters at all.

Do you see any upside to the high level of stress that kids feel about the college admissions process today? In other words, is it possible that putting the fear of God into kids that they won't amount to anything unless they get into a certain type of school in some sense inspires them to get more out of high school than they otherwise would? Or do you think the whole notion of conducting one's high school experience with a view to making oneself attractive to an admissions committee somehow invalidates it all and makes it more about artifice than about genuine learning and growth?

I think the stress over college admissions is mainly a negative thing. To the extent that it causes kids to take their studies more seriously and do their homework and participate in extracurricular activities, it can be helpful. But college admissions should not hang over the high school years as some sort of terrible sword. The high school years should be enjoyed. The stress doesn't affect every kid, of course, but I think it's not just an upper-class phenomenon anymore. You should be stressed about whether you get into college, because the research is crystal clear that there's a huge difference in life outcomes between going to college and not going to college. Unless you're unusually talented or very unconventional, if you don't go to college, you're going to end up on the low end of the totem pole in life. But it's just not worth wasting your time and energy worrying about whether you'll get into the University of Michigan or some other specific school.

Clearly there's a perception that the fancier the pedigree of the institution one can get into, the greater the odds are that one will accomplish great things and lead a fabulous life. But I wonder whether to some extent the kinds of students who follow the rules and strive to please their parents and knock themselves out doing all the right things to get into the right schools in fact grow up to lead predictable lives, whereas maybe it's the quirky rebellious ones—the type who skip the jumping through hoops required for the fanciest college diplomas—who really make it big.

I think that's true. This is the David Brooks theory, by the way. He's written that the college admissions process has become almost entirely a test of your ability to please adults—or specifically the sorts of adults who are college admissions officers. There's nothing wrong with pleasing such people. But once you get out into the world, where there are no rules and things are not structured and your own initiative is more important than your ability to please, then everything changes.

I do think we've seen that the top schools increasingly are producing extremely conventional people. Not that there's anything wrong with producing conventional people, but you might think that graduates from Yale or Wellesley or Amherst would be the ones to go on to be really artistic and creative or become great engineers or inventors and make important discoveries. You're seeing instead that the important discoveries and the artistic creativity are coming from people out of places like Colby and Colorado College—because they haven't gone through this process of sacrificing their lives to conventionality.

What about the kids who do end up getting into the most desirable schools? Is there a sense that some of them impute too much significance to the fact that they were fortunate enough to get accepted, and end up hampered by arrogance or entitlement?

I think, yes, if you wander around the campuses of Johns Hopkins or Berkeley or Princeton or Penn, you can certainly find kids who are more full of themselves than is good for them. The process—the overemphasis on name-brand schools—may create this. But you know, you can find people who are full of themselves anywhere, so I don't know how much of that relates to college admissions.

You describe a study by Alan Kreuger and Stacey Dale which shows that kids who turned down an Ivy League school to attend a "moderately selective" school went on to earn the same amount in later years as kids who got into and actually attended an Ivy League school. This shows, you suggest, that a talented, high-achieving student will end up succeeding regardless of where he or she goes to school. But what about the reverse? Isn't it likely that a student who isn't as bright, but (by fluke or because they're a legacy) gets into a top school will be disproportionately helped by having that pedigree?

That could be true. I don't know if there's been any research on that, though.

What do you think are the most important steps that can be taken toward reeducating people about the college admissions process?

Most of the college counselors I talked to said they spend roughly half their time now convincing parents that it's not a disaster if their kids don't get into the most selective schools. They said that twenty years ago they spent most of their time trying to let kids know what college admissions officers are looking for. Now they find that kids and their parents are very well informed about that, so they need to devote more energy toward convincing parents that if their child winds up at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, they should be happy instead of sad. I think college admission counselors will probably continue to spend more and more time on that in the future.

What was your own experience like as a college applicant? Did you feel the same pressures that the students you're writing about are experiencing today?

No. I'm fifty-one years old, and I think almost everyone in my generation spent at most a tiny fraction of the amount of time on this question that current high school students do. People from my generation started thinking about college maybe in their junior year of high school at the earliest. And most people didn't start until their senior year. You just wrote away to half a dozen schools for their catalogues, thumbed through them, and then applied to a couple. I probably discussed my college applications with my parents three or four times. My parents were both very well informed people—my father was a dentist, and my mother was a public school teacher—but they both basically said, "Find a good college, get in, good luck."

I live in Bethesda, Maryland, which has an excellent public school system. One reason we live here is so that we can be happy about sending our kids to public school. And the Hoover school, which is one of the local middle schools, had a class on college counseling for parents. This was for parents of kids in the eighth grade. I went to see what was going on, and the place was mobbed. It wasn't just a couple of unusually paranoid eighth grade parents; virtually every eighth grade parent was there. And they were asking, "What can I do now to start working on making my kid look better for college?" I would guess that most if not all of the parents in that room had never known anything remotely like that themselves as children. They probably just wrote away for some college catalogues when they were seniors.

Do you think it will be hard for you to resist those kinds of pressures when your own kids get to be that age?

Yes. It's the classic arms-race problem. In an arms race, each individual player knows the race is ridiculous, but they also know that their opponents are doing everything possible to win. So if your kid is competing against kids who have gotten college counseling since they were in sixth grade, and whose parents chose their preschool based on how it would impress the college admissions officers, then you feel compelled to do it too. I do think that the colleges—especially the top schools—have made efforts in recent years to communicate that they are not impressed with what preschool your kid went to and that kind of thing. But the top colleges still need to do a much better job communicating that they're not impressed with obvious attempts to manipulate a child's background. They all say, and I believe it's true, that if you were sitting in on a meeting where candidates to a top school were being accepted or rejected, you would see a lot of snickering about the obvious attempts to impress the college admission officers. Because they know what the tricks are, and they aren't fooled.

How likely do you think it is that our obsession with getting into a name-brand college will diminish? Will the kids undergoing the college admissions process today subject their kids to the same kinds of pressures?

It's hard to say. Society's fixation on status seems to be rising in just about every category. So based on current trends, you'd expect that our fixation on college admissions will continue to rise. But trends can change. And there may be some event or series of events in the future that will cause people to become less obsessed about all this. And who knows? Maybe people will pass around this article and say, "Hey, I don't have to cry if I don't get into Princeton."