By Gretchen Althoff Snyder
What we are experiencing is the “spiritual and moral damage of treating college as a high-end shopping mall.”
Celebrated New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni spoke to a packed “Heard in Rye” workshop in the Rye Country Day School gymnasium on March 1 about the utter mania that is the college admissions process. Bruni, himself a product of parents who were laser-focused on admission to top tier schools, said the process today has hit epic proportions. His book, “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be”, urges parents, educators, and administrators to take a step back and examine what all the madness is doing to our youth.
Recalling his own experience, Bruni noted that his parents moved him from a public school in White Plains to a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut because his high school “wasn’t getting enough kids into the Ivy League schools.” He quips that his mother would drive around with her kids in the car, wildly impressed by and enthusiastically commenting on the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton stickers on the back of other cars (“Oh – they did so well!”). Twenty-five years later, he says the anxiety and sheer madness surrounding the college admissions process has become exponentially worse.
Bruni was compelled to write this book because of the self-perpetuating myth that “your future rises and falls based upon what college you get into.” He notes that colleges definitely have a hand in the mania: Last year, Stanford had a 4.65% acceptance rate, Harvard dipped below 6%, and Columbia and Yale were just below 7%. Too much focus and weight is being placed on college pedigrees. As a result, Bruni suggests that our children are getting an incomplete, highly selective perspective from the narrative we perpetuate – that individual success is based upon the caliber and prestige of the college they attend.
He posed the question: “Are the elite schools really sprinkling some kind of magic fairy dust on their students?” The answer, in his opinion, is unequivocally no. Bruni notes that many of his colleagues who have won Pulitzer prizes did not attend top-ranked institutions. He himself turned down an offer from Yale (much to his mother’s dismay) to attend the University of North Carolina.
By latching on to the notion that attending elite schools is the ultimate goal, we are sacrificing our children’s mental health, Bruni asserts. Over the last decade, he notes, anxiety has overtaken depression as the number one reason kids seek counseling. What we are experiencing is the “spiritual and moral damage of treating college as a high-end shopping mall.” By putting so much emphasis on doing whatever it takes to get into a brag-worthy school, “we are inadvertently sending the message to our kids that: calculation means more than passion, packaging matters more than the product, and life yields to tidy scripts.”
We have lost sight of what is most important, says Bruni, which is for students to take the time to find out what they love and what they are good at. “At the end of the day, it is all about the qualities, determination, and commitment of the individual.” Bruni hopes to change the conversation – redirecting the energy wrapped up in how to get into the elite schools, and focusing instead on how to develop the “muscle of engagement” and teach our kids to fully immerse themselves in and get the most possible out of their college experience.
Frank Bruni made a number of important points at the recent “Heard in Rye” program.