No one prescribed path to success

William Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist, a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School, and the co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. And while I take small issue with the title (more on that in a minute), I did enjoy his piece “It’s Time to Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College,” especially this portion:

“Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth — giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student — increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.”

I’ve learned that authors often don’t write the titles of their pieces in major outlets, and that may be the case here. But I’d be cautious about being so dismissive about the college choice to say that where you go simply doesn’t matter at all. Colleges are not all the same. The right college for one student may not be the right cost, academic setting, environment, etc. for another.

But the larger point is still an important one. Great educations can be found at many colleges, not just the famous, expensive, or prestigious ones. What you do in college will be more important than the name of the school where you do it. And there’s no one prescribed path to success.

Do you get what you pay for?

Senior families, as you weigh the costs of your college options, here’s a benchmark to avoid: “You get what you pay for.” That might be true when you’re choosing a television, a new roof, or a seat on an airplane. But it just doesn’t hold up when you’re choosing a college.

Almost every purported benefit of any college is only worth the degree to which a student avails themselves of that benefit.

Small classes can lead to a lot of personal attention and interaction with professors, but only if the student wants and takes advantage of that opportunity.

Six Nobel Prize-winning professors on campus? Great. How do you plan to make that benefit a benefit to you?

Great snowboarding, a top engineering program, a wide range of study abroad options, deep pre-med advising, a socially conscious student body, a brand new gym on campus, a city with virtually unlimited internship opportunities, etc.—each is like an item on a menu. It’s available for you to order and enjoy, but none are served up and force-fed to you. Choose the school that offers an appealing menu, then order and enjoy accordingly.

It’s up to each student and parent to decide together if the offerings at any college justify the price. Many students who attend expensive schools rave about the experiences. But they don’t do so more effusively than those who attend the more moderately priced options. College is an investment that should be carefully considered. But price doesn’t perfectly correlate to quality for good reason—you get to drive the value of your own returns.

With college, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. You get what you make of what you pay for.

Enjoyment now vs. later

In 2001, I was invited to give the welcoming address to the new freshman class at my alma mater, UC Irvine. And during my opening comments about how much the campus had changed, I remarked that one thing likely remained the same:

“I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

And seemingly every freshman in the room laughed.

That joke wouldn’t resonate as much today as it once did because it’s no longer true for a host of reasons. But at that time—much as when I began my own freshman year—it spoke to a reality. Most students had originally wanted to be somewhere else, most commonly, about 40 miles north at the home of The Bruins.

There’s a powerful lesson in here for students just starting their college search, and for seniors who will spend the next few months waiting for news about where they’ll be spending the next four years.

Those freshmen were able to have a good laugh at their own admissions expense for two reasons:

1. They were over it. Yes, it had hurt when UCLA said no. Plenty of tears had been shed. But those students eventually did what most human beings do in the face disappointment—they licked their wounds and forged ahead. If ever you needed evidence that a “no” from your dream school is not a tragedy, just look at how quickly most teens bounce back at another college.

2. Disappointment over where they couldn’t go had turned to excitement about where they’d ended up. They were starting college that day! Everything they’d been working and waiting for during the last four years was about to pay off. Dorms, classes, new friends, new experiences—it was all there in front of them. How could they not feel excited about what was in store?

Seniors, if you don’t get the answers you’re hoping for from your top choice schools, remember that room of freshmen at UC Irvine. When UCLA sent the bad news, they were just as disappointed as you’d expect them to be. But just six months later, they were laughing about that school that said no. And even more importantly, they were thrilled to be attending the school that said yes.

And juniors, as you begin your college search, as you think and answer questions about what you’re looking for in a school, it’s only natural that you’ll develop some front-running favorites, schools that you pine for more strongly than others.

But don’t let those preferences inject negativity into your process. You’re going to get in somewhere, probably a place where you’ll one day be thrilled to sit in freshman orientation. And if you develop a reasonable college list that has your counselor’s endorsement, that outcome is almost a guarantee.

If you want to have a college admissions process without all the stress and anxiety, imagine that enjoyment you’re bound to feel later and inject some of it into your process now.

Do college rankings really matter?

Our own Arun Ponnusamy has a lot of experience with colleges that routinely top the rankings lists. He attended the University of Chicago, and he read applications at his alma mater, at Caltech, and at UCLA. So it might surprise you to hear him remind students and parents that college rankings do nothing more than sell magazines and serve as online clickbait. And he explains why in just over two minutes.

What the research says about prestigious colleges

From the Gallup Organization’s “5 Ways to Make College a Success,” the findings of which are based on their comprehensive research on higher education.

4. Question the value of attending prestigious, highly selective and high-priced colleges and universities. They actually provide little (at best) to no (at worst) advantage in being engaged in your job and in your life outcomes (thriving in your well-being). Nor do they reduce the chances of feeling education regret. College is much more about what you make of it — how you take advantage of your education — than the type of institution you attend.

If I get in, then…

Students are too focused on the allure of prestigious colleges, often believing that if they can just get into one, everything else will just fall into place. All their work that led up to it will be validated. They’ll be happy and less stressed. They’ll be virtually guaranteed a life of success and fulfillment.

But college acceptances, even to prestigious schools, don’t work like that. Yes, an acceptance to your dream college would feel great and would definitely be worth celebrating. But any expectation that just getting in will start a domino-like chain reaction where everything else in life just goes your way is unrealistic and unhealthy. Your education, your success, and your life are all a work in progress, no matter where you go to college.

Author and Harvard professor Shaun Achor spent years not only counseling Harvard students, but also teaching a positive psychology course so popular that at one point, 1 out of every 7 Harvard students enrolled. I think his quote in this Psychology Today article has a lot of relevance for high school students (and their parents) who are putting too much hope into just how much happiness that dream college acceptance could likely bring (the bracketed portion is mine):

“When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success with happiness. Empirically, we know success does not lead to happiness. Is everyone with a job happy? Is every rich person happy? Then step one is to stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion [ed. note: or getting into a famous college], etc. is the only thing that can brings happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out any celebrity magazine to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.”

If you love a prestigious college, you think you would thrive there, and your counselor agrees, by all means, take your best shot! But also take some comfort in knowing that whether or not you’re happy and successful in college and in life will depend a lot more on you than it will on where your college sits in the US News rankings that year.

Your worth isn’t found in a college’s decision

Many colleges are releasing their early admissions decisions, and I can’t think of a better message to share (again) than that from Patrick O’Connor in his 2014 piece, What Your College Application Decisions Won’t Tell You.

O’Connor builds his message with several specific examples, all of which eventually lead to a conclusion I wish every senior who applied to college would read and embrace:

“A yes from a college doesn’t make you somebody; the work you put in to earn that yes did that. A no from a college doesn’t make you nobody; that happens when you decide their denial is a character indictment, instead of an opportunity to build a great life at another school…Your worth is within you, and it isn’t waiting for much of anything, other than your recognition of its existence.”

In fact, the sentiment could be broadly applied to any high school student, from freshman to senior, who hopes to attend college. I hope you’ll read and share it.

How to make sense of college rankings

When it comes to utilizing college rankings, I’ve found that most families fall into one of three camps:

1. Those who don’t consider them.
2. Those who plan to incorporate rankings into a variety of college factors.
3. Those who let the rankings drive their entire college process.

I’ve seen some families in that third camp arrive at their first Collegewise meeting with the latest US News college rankings in hand, intent on limiting their college list to schools in the top ten. Matchmaking, shmatchmaking—it’s all about getting into the highest US News-ranked school possible.

I don’t expect to effectively convince many folks in that camp to migrate, but if you’re on the fence and might be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not any agency can effectively rank colleges, please check out Frank Bruni’s latest New York Times piece, How to Make Sense of College Rankings, the gist of which can be found in this excerpt:

“But [college] rankings cannot take into account, and thus ignore, the most consequential part of the equation, which isn’t some spell that a given school casts on a student but a student’s commitment, curiosity, daring. An obsession with rankings obscures and invariably minimizes this essential truth.”

Glimpse your future

I remember my first Collegewise student who had an incurable case of namebranditis.

Stanford was the only school he could envision himself attending. In his mind, if it wasn’t going to be Stanford, it had to be a school that was just as prestigious. And I knew after just one meeting that this was going to be a problem.

He was the consummate good kid. Smart, hardworking, and polite—all the tools a student needs to be successful. But while he earned almost entirely A’s in high school, he had consistent B’s in his math classes. He scored in the mid-1200s on the SAT. Those credentials were good enough for him to be a certain admit at hundreds of colleges. But they just weren’t going to get him admitted to schools that deny droves of seemingly perfect applicants.

Still, at every meeting, he asked the same questions about how to improve his chances of admission to Stanford and “colleges that are just as good.” It didn’t matter what I said or did to try to get him to see that he deserved better than the stress and uncertainty that would come with hanging his hopes on a short list of colleges that admitted fewer than 15 of every 100 students who applied. He reluctantly added some more realistic schools, but only because of my urging, and he never could muster any excitement for them.

All those reach schools he insisted on applying to said no. The only “good school” (his words) that said yes was Tufts.

Now, Tufts is—and was back then—no slouch in terms of selectivity. But it wasn’t Stanford or the Ivy League. To him, that meant that Tufts just wasn’t good enough. And he was heartbroken.

The good news is that, as is almost always the case with admissions decision disappointment, once he stopped looking back and started looking forward to everything that was waiting for him in college, he perked right up. He bought the sweatshirt and registered for classes and threw himself into life as a Tufts Jumbo. He invested all that innate work ethic and character into carving out a remarkable college career for himself, earning top grades and enjoying a very successful stint on Tufts’ sailing team.

Four years later, he graduated and went to medical school. Today, he’s a happy and successful pediatrician.

What if he could have glimpsed into his future while suffering from namebranditis back in high school? What if he could have seen how much learning, growth and fun were waiting for him at a college that he felt at the time was beneath him? And most importantly, what if the crystal ball had shown him the future proof that his career dreams were all going to come true, even without the admission he craved from one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges?

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream college or two. Take your best shot and see what happens. But remember that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Your future career may not be certain, with or without a magic crystal ball. But your success and happiness will not be dependent on an admissions decision from a prestigious college. If you could glimpse your future, you’d be certain of it.