New York Times. By Frank Bruni, published: January 5, 2013
My niece Leslie is still more than nine months away from sending in a college application and more than 18 from stepping into her first college class, but already she’s swimming in numbers: the average SAT scores for one university’s student body; the percentage of applicants another school admits; how much money, on average, the graduates of yet another school tend to make once they’ve been in the work force awhile. This is the kind of information spotlighted in the articles and books that are supposed to guide her and her peers. These are the types of factoids that the adults around them often focus on.
Which school will bequeath the best network? Which diploma has the most cachet? Various relatives pitch Leslie on the virtues of their alma maters, and as surely as my niece swims in numbers, she drowns in advice. But much of it strikes me as shortsighted and incomplete, and I worry that she’ll be coaxed to make her choice in a way that disregards the inimitable opportunity that college presents, the full bounty and splendor of those potentially transformative years. I have the same worry about other secondary-school students who, like her, possess the economic and intellectual good fortune — and the hard-won transcripts — to entertain a wealth of alternatives, because I think we let them get too distracted by rankings, ratings, brands. We don’t point them toward assessments and dynamics that are arguably more meaningful.
Last week was the deadline to apply to many colleges and universities, though the admissions dance — the dreaming, scheming, waiting and worrying — has really become a year-round, nonstop phenomenon, starting well before the final stretch of high school. Leslie’s a junior and has already visited half a dozen campuses, to see how they feel.
And if she’s like most of my peers when I was her age, she’ll wind up picking one that gives her a sense of comfort, of safety. That’s what too many kids do. They perpetuate what they’re familiar with, gravitating to the same schools that their friends are or duplicating their parents’ paths. And there’s so much lost in that reflex, so much surrendered by that timidity.
If you’re among the lucky who can factor more than cost and proximity into where you decide to go, college is a ticket to an adventure beyond the parameters of what you’ve experienced so far. It’s a passport to the far side of what you already know. It’s a chance to be challenged, not coddled. To be provoked, not pacified.
Does brand matter? To a point. There are indeed future employers who see certain diplomas as seals of approval, as pre-screening of a sort, and there are many successful people who got that way by milking contacts made at storied universities. But there are just as many who prospered without the imprimatur of one of the hyper-exclusive schools near the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report list. And even if you’re confining yourself to those schools, you can and should ask questions about them that prospective freshmen frequently don’t.
How many of a college’s or university’s students are coming from other countries? Favor schools with higher percentages of foreigners, because as much of your education will happen outside as inside any lecture hall, and globalism is here and real. The dexterity with which you can navigate other cultures — your awareness of, and openness to, them — could be more valuable and happy-making than any knowledge gleaned from a book.
When it comes to the internationalism of a school, don’t assume the loftiest ones win the race. In one measure of this, Carnegie Mellon, Boston University and Brandeis came out ahead of Harvard, Stanford, Williams or Duke.
You might also take into account what percentage of a school’s students travel in the opposite direction and do some study abroad. That could be an indication of your future classmates’ daring or curiosity, and those classmates will presumably bring the fruits of their experiences back to campus. According to U.S. News & World Report, of the 41 schools that claim to have sent more than 50 percent of their students to a study-abroad program, only one, Dartmouth, is in the Ivy League.
I use the word “claim” deliberately and urge skepticism with rankings. They depend on honest reporting from schools, and in recent years both Claremont McKenna College and Emory University were forced to admit inflation in what they’d trumpeted about the test scores or other achievements of their students. Also, what does “study abroad” mean? A semester or a week, and in Mumbai or just Montreal? As it happens, more than half of the American college students who take an academic detour from the United States still head to Europe, and the most popular destination is Britain, according to the Institute of International Education. They’re not exactly honing new language skills there.
So dig as deeply as you can into what the statistics that colleges showcase do and don’t assure. And treat your undergraduate education as a rare license, before you’re confined by the burdens of full-fledged adulthood and before the costs of experimentation rise, to be tugged outside your comfort zone. To be yanked, preferably. If you’ve spent little time in the thick of a busy city, contemplate a school in precisely such a place. If you know only the North, think about the South. Seek diversity, not just in terms of nationality, ethnicity and race, but also in terms of financial background, especially if your bearings have been resolutely and narrowly upper middle class. You’ll most likely encounter a different economic cross-section of classmates at one of the top state universities than you will at a small private college. Doesn’t that have merit, and shouldn’t that be weighed?
And if your interests and circumstances don’t demand an immediate concentration on one field of study, go somewhere that’ll force you to stretch in multiple directions. (A core curriculum isn’t a bad thing at all.) The world is in constant flux, life is a sequence of surprises, and I can think of no better talents to pick up in college than fearlessness, nimbleness and the ability to roll with change, adapt to newness and improvise.
I have 11 nieces and nephews in all. There are 10 younger than Leslie. I hope all of them have the options that she seems to, and I hope they ask themselves not which school is the surest route to riches but which will give them the richest experiences to draw from, which will broaden their frames of reference. College can shrink your universe, or college can expand it. I vote for the latter.
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