Setting a Course: Bruni’s “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be”

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As an English professor for the Virginia Community College System, I deal with the issues confronting higher education on a daily basis. However, having a daughter in eighth grade has given me new insights into the insanity that is now college admissions process.  Therefore, I was eager to read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

Bruni explains, “College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to give your brain a vigorous workout and your soul a thorough investigation, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. And this is being lost in the admissions mania.”  Unfortunately, while I share Bruni’s view of the college experience, many don’t, and I worry that what’s being lost by this new mindsight costs far more than the exorbitant price tag.

How did we end up in this predicament? According to Bruni, “What’s happened at these schools is straightforward: The number of slots for incoming students either hasn’t expanded significantly or hadn’t risen nearly as much as the number of young people applying for them, and that surge in applications reflects a confluence of developments.”

A record number of applications are being submitted by prospective students, thanks to convenient technology like the Common Application. Bruni notes, “A quarter century ago, only one in ten college-bound students applied to seven or more colleges. Now, more than one in four do.”  This shift impacts a college’s perceived worth because selectivity is a factor when colleges are ranked.  Bruni explains a lot – from how foreign applicants, whose affluent families can pay the bill, to “primary legacies” influence admissions. If you’re interested in learning more about the negatives of the U.S. News & World Report Rankings, this is a good resource.

According to Bruni, “Roughly 75 percent of the students at the two hundred most highly rated colleges come from families in the top quartile of income in the United States.”  He explains this is in part because of families’ investment in the process.  Bruni references Mark Sklarow, the chief executive of the Independent Education Consultants Association, who said over a decade ago approximately 1,500 professionals worked as full-time college consultants and by 2014 there were about 7,500.

Still, Bruni gives many effective examples to illustrate his point that it’s what you put in to college, not where you go, but I particularly liked this quote from makeup mogul, Bobbi Brown, who switched colleges three times, “If you can identify and stick with something you’re genuinely passionate about, you’re ahead of the game,” regardless of where you go to school.

Bruni insists, “If you’re a parent who’s pushing your kids relentlessly and narrowly toward one of the most prized schools in the country and you think you’re doing them a favor, you’re not.” As far as he’s concerned, “You’re going to get into a college that’s more than able to provide a superb education to anyone who insists on one and who takes firm charge of his or her time there.  But your chances of getting into the school of your dreams are slim…To lose sight of that is to buy into, and essentially endorse, a game that’s spun wildly out of control.”

When I speak to my college classes about this issue, I compare it to Weight Watchers.  Just because someone pays to join and attends meetings, that doesn’t mean he or she is going to lose weight.  Results are determined by the person’s commitment every day.

So check out Frank Bruni’s antidote to the college admissions mania. He paints a convincing picture that hard work, and what my family refers to as “chutzpah,” is what’s required to succeed, not the name of the degree.

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