Wednesday, February 10, 2016

At last! Sense about college choice

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, college, college admissions

One of my college housemates went on to become a billionaire, as did his brother. I'll call them Charlie and George. My housemate and schoolmate Charlie, and I, graduated from California State University at Los Angeles. He also received his MS there. George went to Harvard. So you could say, of my personal sample of two, that 50% went to an elite university. Of course, as my son reminded me, a sample of two is not enough to calculate a meaningful standard deviation.

Statistics about billionaires and other "elite" folk abound on the Internet. Particularly in America, having thrown off the shackles of European hereditary aristocracy in the 1600's and 1700's, Euro-Americans instead developed a fascination for three equally vapid aristocracies, based on celebrity, power, or wealth. Thus, it isn't hard to find that 52 of Harvard's graduates are billionaires, about twice as many as any other college, nor that nearly 40% of self-made billionaires went to an "elite" school, but also that 25% never finished college.

Charlie and George aren't entirely self-made; they took over a company worth a few tens of millions from their father, and built it into an empire worth 1,000 times as much. So I suppose they are 99.9% self-made!

I mentioned my son for a reason. His BA and MA are in the least-lucrative field: Education. In spite of valiant efforts on my part to direct him to a S.T.E.M. field, he majored in English with a French minor, and his graduate degree is also in Education. After a year of substitute teaching for about $75/day, and some twists and turns that include a stint as a night security guard, he had the opportunity to become a private tutor, preparing students to take the SAT or ACT. More recently, he has also been contract teaching courses that certain schools offer in the same area. He is particularly adept at teaching kids to ace the math portions of the tests, which is ironic because he sort of avoided math in his own coursework. Thus his understanding of statistical concepts, when he and I talked about this book. And, his income may not be as stable as that of a classroom teacher, but he earns more than they do, about double their average income.

On to the book: Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni. Boiling down a huge amount of material, the author presents the case that, now more than ever, college is what you make of it, and far too many college-bound young Americans covet an elite education in hopes that the school will make them into someone great. Nope. You have to do that yourself. "We are dealt the cards, but play our own hand." (to quote myself)

Researching the subject, I found several critical reviews of the book. All mistake the message, thinking that Bruni is saying "It doesn't matter where you go." No, he is saying that it matters most how well the school environment matches the student, and to what extent the student takes advantage of it. Let's look at it this way. If the hype about the Ivy League (just eight institutions) were accurate, tens of thousands of their alumni would be billionaires, not the actual couple of hundred.

Even more, Bruni blames the hype itself as the gasoline on the conflagration he calls Mania. Our son's work feeds on that mania. He lives in central New Jersey, where thousands of wealthy parents will spare no expense to get their children into the Ivy League, or at least, one of the "second rank" colleges. Who decided what the ranks are? For 3+ decades, the journal U.S. News and World Report has published a yearly ranking of a great many colleges in the U.S. Their methodology is well known, and the schools that can afford to have been gaming the system almost from the beginning.

One of the weightiest factors is "selectivity", which keeps Princeton near the top of the rankings, because they admit only about one in thirteen who apply: 7.5%. To keep the applications rolling in, they advertise heavily, as do all the schools that bubble to the top of the U.S. News rankings. Bruni says the rankings themselves are a great part of the problem, and result in a majority of our most ambitious students being disappointed by "elite rejection". At one point he uses the word "fraudulent", and I agree.

The book abounds with stories of people, some very prominent now, who were rejected by most of the schools they applied for—frequently, rejected by all but one—yet became very successful. They made lemonade out of the lemons they were offered.

But here is the point. The majority of American universities are not "lemons". They offer fine educations. Our son attended only one university, Rutgers. It is considered "almost elite". I attended two state schools (in different states) and spent a year in a junior college in between, and then went to graduate school at a second-rank mining school. I don't consider myself a failure. I pretty much got what I'd aimed for.

So it comes down to this: "One man's meat is another man's poison." How would George have fared at Cal State, and how would Charlie have fared at Harvard? Probably about as well, but perhaps not. Knowing the two men, I think each found a match to his temperament. Had I been accepted to my first choice, UCLA, rather than Kent State, where I began, and Cal State, where I finished, what would have happened? There is no way to know. But I'm happy with how things turned out. I had work that I considered my "paying hobby" for 40+ years, even though it was not "in my field."

The core of Frank Bruni's message is, knock on several doors. Go through the door that opens. Who you are already will determine the outcome, not which door you pass through.

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