Do yourself a favor: Don't sweat the college-admission process. Don't beat up your kids and pressure their counselors. Don't fall prey to the greedy exploitation of college administrators. Don't be part of what author Frank Bruni calls "the great, brutal culling."
In his new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, the New York Times columnist tries to bring some sanity to this season of high anxiety. "What madness," he calls the pressure imposed upon teenagers making their first major decision. "And what nonsense."
While this is not a political book, politics is one of the many corners of society scoured by Bruni for proof of his twin theses: First, the admissions game is too rigged to be the source of such palpitations. Second, the nature of a student's college experience—"the work that he or she puts into it, the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that's undertaken, the resourcefulness that's honed"—matters more than the reputation of the institution he or she attends.
For every George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama who started at, or matriculated to, a top-tier college, there are dozens of Ronald Reagans, Bruni notes. Reagan attended Eureka College, a tiny school in Illinois that, in 2014, was ranked only 31st among "Regional Colleges (Midwest)" on the U.S. News & World Report survey (Bruni loathes that survey, with good reason).
Richard Nixon got his bachelor's from Whittier College in Southern California. Lyndon Johnson got his from Southwest Texas State Teachers College. Joe Biden went to the University of Delaware (and then to Syracuse University Law School). Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, attended Miami University of Ohio. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, earned his undergraduate degree from North Carolina State University and his law degree from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill).
Bruni, who also attended UNC Chapel Hill, lists the many rising stars of the 2016 political cycle who emerged from less-than-Ivy educations: Republicans Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker (who didn't complete his degree at Marquette University), as well as Democrats Martin O'Malley, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Cuomo.
Christie, the New Jersey governor and GOP presidential hopeful, shares with Bruni the perception that there is a greater tendency to mention the Ivy League pedigrees of some politicians than to note the Ivy-less pedigrees of others.
"It's interesting," Christie says, "because our oldest son goes to Princeton, and I remember when he was applying, he said, 'If I get in, do you want me to go? I said, 'Sure.' He said, "But you went to Delaware and turned out OK.' I said, 'You're absolutely right, but I had to work a lot harder.' That's the difference. There's this assumption that if you went to Princeton, you're smarter than the next guy."
Bruni doesn't seem to buy it. He lists the legions of Ivy-less political consultants who made it big: Democrats Donna Brazile, Maggie Williams, Jim Messina, and David Plouffe, as well as Republicans Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt.
Both Plouffe and Schmidt left Delaware without diplomas. Plouffe managed Obama's 2008 campaign, and Schmidt was a senior strategist for Obama's GOP rival, John McCain.
"I don't think there's a tremendous amount of people at the top level of running campaigns who have Ivy League degrees," Schmidt says. Bruni asks him for theories why.
"I think part of the reason is that campaign politics is a rough business, a tough business emotionally," Schmidt says. "I think it carries a fair degree of common sense and a blending of emotional intelligence and IQ intelligence, which isn't necessarily a virtue of the people coming out of the most elite universities, if you were to make generalizations or stereotypes."
Bruni and I covered the 2000 presidential campaign together and I consider him a casual friend. So I am biased. But I also know a valuable and well-reported book when I read one. He makes concrete research come to life via heartfelt interviews with anxious parents and their children. Bruni is a writer's writer. Of the infernal college rankings, he charges: "They're an attention-getting, money-making enterprise for U.S. News, not an actual service to the college-bound. They don a somber gray suit of authority, but it's a hustler's threads."
This book reminds me of a mother and daughter—Megan Chung, 16, and her mother, Laurie—whom I met in Little Rock, Ark., while researching a book on the many outsized expectations of parenthood. Laurie expects Megan to go to Harvard. Megan is starting to resent her mother.
"I know this about mom," Megan said, gently rubbing her mother's arm. "She can't wait to tell her friends, 'Oh, my daughter goes to Harvard. I'm such a great parent.' "
Mrs. Chung nodded. If Megan gets to Harvard, she told me, "I'm going to Harvard, too."
For the Chungs, like so many other parents and college-bound children, a mother's self-affirming expectations are the backdrop for what will soon become a brutal culling.
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