New Part Three - October 16:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part Two - October 4:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Part One - September 25:
James Fallows
Jacques Steinberg

Jacques Steinberg has been a staff reporter for The New York Times for more than ten years and is currently a national education correspondent. In 1998, he was awarded the grand prize of the Education Writers Association for his nine-part series on a third-grade classroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

The Price of Wealth (July 3, 2002)
A dialogue between James Fallows and Kevin Phillips, the author of Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich.

Signals of Saturation (April 3, 2002)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Todd Gitlin, the author of Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.

Policies of Power (December 6, 2001)
James Fallows exchanges e-mail with Walter Russell Mead, the author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World.

More by James Fallows

Atlantic Unbound | October 16, 2002
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Jacques Steinberg
Subject: Is it all a numbers' game? - Part Three

Dear Jacques:

Thanks for your extensive answers. Before giving you a final, mercifully quick round of wrap-up questions, I need to take a minute to respond to your previous dispatch. In the course of this discussion, I've come to suspect that there is a basic difference in the way we feel about the college-admissions process. The difference doesn't reflect that well on me, because it shows me to be somewhat of a curmudgeon. But let me try to explain what I think it is, in the hope of getting your response.

The truth is, the whole college mania makes me more exasperated than I think it does you. I don't mean the actual mechanics of the admissions process, which you describe so vividly in the book. Instead I mean the resulting culture of anxiety, stress, fearfulness, resumé-building, test-cramming, risk-avoidance, and generally distorted behavior that comes from placing so much emphasis on which college a child will get into. You correctly mention some of the understandable sociological reasons for this behavior—for instance, the redirection of immigrant aspirations. That must be part of the story. But it doesn't account for the non-immigrant doctors, lawyers, and assorted professionals who are desperate to get their children into the right pre-schools so as not to lose an edge in the great college derby a dozen years later.

From the archives:

"The Organization Kid" (April 2001)
The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life. By David Brooks
Why am I more on the warpath about this culture than you are? I think the basic reason is that I'm older, and have had almost fifteen more years to grow skeptical about the connection between college admission and anything that counts for happiness or success in life. Without delving too deeply into either your or my life stories, let me follow up on your mention of the possible impact of a Dartmouth degree on your career:

You would agree with me, I think, that as far as econometric studies can show, there is little detectable payoff to an elite-college education. Getting a college degree of some sort, from some college, has huge economic benefits, compared to lacking a B.A. Life is tremendously unfair, and it is most unfair if you don't have a college degree. But if you control for the factors that would give elite-college students a head-start anyway (mainly parental income and education), it's hard to show that it makes much long-term economic difference whether they go to Wesleyan or UConn or Yale. [I received an interesting e-mail from a reader on this point, which I attach here.] That is, the difference among colleges that may seem dramatic to those poring through the U.S. News rankings or waiting for their acceptance letters does not seem to be a significant difference when it comes to long-term economic opportunities. (This is despite the obvious fact that certain networks from certain colleges have advantages in certain fields. Since you've laid your cards on the table, I'll reciprocate: when I was in college, at Harvard, I spent nearly every waking hour working on the newspaper, The Crimson, and friends I met there have obviously been useful journalistic allies through the years.)

I would agree with you that the specific experiences from any given college lead in certain directions, and that our paths might be different if we'd gone to another college. If either of us had gone to one of the other schools we were considering, countless details of subsequent life would have been different. For me, the alternatives were a mixed bag—from Reed and Pomona to Cal Tech and Berkeley to, gasp, the Naval Academy—so things could have been really different. Would they have been worse? With one major disclaimer—that I met my future wife in college and by definition would have been worse off on any other course—I think that mainly they would have been different.

Think for a moment about the power structure above you at The Times, and above me at The Atlantic. The big boss of the Times's newsroom has a degree from Birmingham-Southern, in Alabama. The Times's number-two news executive went to the University of Missouri. I have worked for three editors in my years at The Atlantic. The first, who originally hired me, had not gone to college. The second went to the University of Oklahoma. The third, to the University of New Hampshire. I could go on, but my point is that while there are plenty of Ivy Leaguers now salted throughout the journalistic establishment, our business hardly supports the idea that the more exclusive the college, the clearer the path to success.

Why do I bother to complain about this? Because of the needless pressure on kids up through age eighteen involving this decision. Again, this may bother me more than it does you, because I've had more of a chance to see the whole cycle unfold—including seeing my children and their friends go through the wringer. Yes, students should take their studies seriously, and they should develop as many skills as possible, and they should explore a wide range of activities—and they should try to get into the colleges they think will be best for them. But they shouldn't have to start hedging bets (via "feeder schools") early on, or worry so much about the consequences of their college choice. Above all, they should not have to receive the message from their parents, clear even though unspoken, that unless they stack the odds in their favor, with the right prep schools and the right admissions strategy and the most exclusive college label, they won't really cut it in life. I can't think of a more destructive message to send to teenagers.

But enough of this! (Though I would be interested in hearing your "I agree / I disagree" thoughts.) Let's get back to reality. The culture of college-mania does exist. That's good for the magazine I once edited, as it sells its college rankings. It's good for Stanley Kaplan and the Princeton Review. It's good for us in our discussion here, and it's good for your book.

We can return the favor by giving the college-obsessed a few inside tips. I invite you to tell the anxious parents of America: what are the three most surprising things you learned about the way college admissions really work? What are the ways to Win the Elite College Admissions Game?

Thanks in advance for your answer—and for the reporting that went into your book.

Jim Fallows

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