Lisa writes: Over on the Motherlode blog at The New York Times, writers KJ Dell’Antonia and Hope Perlman discussed the importance, or lack of importance, in attending a prestigious college. The two thoughtful back-to-back pieces laid out the opposing viewpoints on chasing admission to an excellent college, a process that begins early in high school, versus chasing one’s passions and seeing where that might lead.
Perlman’s piece focused on the benefits that can accrue from attending a well-known college in terms of contacts, and later jobs, and despite hoping her daughter becomes a happy well-rounded adult, she would like her to have this opportunity.
Dell’Antonia’s rebuttal stated that ambition would lead to success and that it ultimately matters what you do with your education, not where you obtained it. She theorizes that she will not care where her kids attend college when the time comes.
Neither mother has been through the college process and are still speaking of aspirations and concerns. Having come through the other side of this process, I come down on the side of urging a child to get into a good college, but not for the reasons either writer suggested.
One writer’s argument was couched in terms of the material success and professional opportunities a great education can help deliver and the other’s in terms of her unwillingness to encourage her child to chase prestige.
But there is a third perspective, I believe. There is a series of reasons why attending an excellent college is enriching for a student’s life that has nothing to do with jobs or careers, prestige or contacts. College is about the four years, not just the rest of life.
It is a Time to Find Out What You are Made Of
Trying to get into a good college requires a huge sustained effort on the part of a high school student over a number of years. Whether a child attains admittance to a good university or not, there are true benefits to being challenged at this crucial age and learning the extent of one’s capabilities.
Universities with competitive admissions select students based on high performance in a number of different realms including academics, athletics and the arts. For many kids, high school is one of the first chances to really challenge and stretch themselves along one of these dimensions, and college admissions aside, this seems like a great moment in life to do so.
At 15, most kids don’t know what they want to study or where life will lead them, how could they? At 18, a few more have an idea but since most kids have been to high schools that do not offer engineering, sociology, business, Women’s Studies and computer science…it would be very difficult for them to know if any of these, or many other, subjects excited their intellectual passions. By impressing upon them the need to do their best during the high school years, options are left open and paths unencumbered until they know more about themselves and the world.
Great Colleges Offer Things Far More Important Than Prestige
Good universities and colleges offer a huge range of fields of studies and majors, and although many kids profess to know what they want to study in college, in reality, the vast majority have no idea and do not end up majoring in the subject they wrote down on their application. This argues for attending a college that has the resources to provide a wide array of academic options.
Selective colleges spend far more on instruction than less selective institutions. A recent study showed that “highly competitive” colleges had twice the resources to spend in the classroom than “competitive” schools. These resources can be used to offer small seminars, better qualified faculty and teaching assistants, research opportunities for undergraduates, laboratories, libraries, theaters and better academic advising. Parents may be paying nearly the same but the college is putting far more resources into the classroom.
Taking courses is just a part of college life. Better endowed colleges also offer a huge array of clubs, teams, distinguished lecturers, concerts, trips and all manner of activities. These offerings enrich the university experience in social, intellectual and cultural ways that less affluent colleges cannot.
Expanding Their World
There is a rough, though certainly not perfect, correlation between the academic strength of a school and its resources. Ironically, wealthier schools are able to create highly diverse student bodies as they have the ability to reach into deeper pockets to make financial aid available. Schools with strong academic profiles attract foreign students further enriching their student body.
For an excellent student from a less advantaged background, those schools that are considered to be very competitive, highly competitive or most competitive may actually cost the student less. Even as the school spends far more on instruction per student, the out-of-pocket expenses for students receiving aid declines.
Lighting a Fire
One argument on Motherlode for not pushing kids into selective universities was that ambition cannot be handed down, that the drive for such things must come from the student, not the parent. Dell’Antonia makes the point, “Passion and drive are transferable from topic to topic and place to place, but not from person to person. My ambition can’t substitute for theirs.” By and large I agree, but if you want your kid to show passion, work hard, find his ambition and throw himself into the life of his university….put him among other kids who display these qualities.
If I have learned one thing about parenting it is that I may not be able to get my kids to do something, but their friends can. The peers our children are surrounded with have a profound impact on their outlook and on their vision for their own future. If they are surrounded by deeply motivated peers, kids who devote themselves to their sports, studies and activities, they are more likely to do the same. Ambition may not be genetic, but it is contagious.
It isn’t Just about Getting into College, it is about Staying There and Graduating
When we send our kids off to college we hope they will graduate, in four years if at all possible. Good colleges have low drop-out rates and high four-year completion rates. If at the college your child has chosen it is the norm to graduate in four years, that will become his norm. He may not achieve it, but he will see that as the goal. At a school with good resources, this will be made easier with academic guidance, extra help as needed, and the ability to get into the classes required for timely graduation. Not graduating in four years is costly in terms of added years of tuition and the opportunity cost of delaying the start of a career.
For kids from less privileged backgrounds, the difference between going to a really good university and a middling one can be the difference between graduating and not. The New York Times this week explained, “If they make it to top colleges, high-achieving, low-income students tend to thrive there, the paper found. Based on the most recent data, 89 percent of such students at selective colleges had graduated or were on pace to do so, compared with only 50 percent of top low-income students at nonselective colleges.”
College is About College
So, to the question asked on the Motherlode that sparked the college debate, Do you weigh in on your child’s high school course selection and urge them to try and get into a “good school?” The answer, I believe, is yes. I say this not because a better school might buy your child a permanent gold star on their resume nor because they might rub shoulders with the future elite, but rather for what will happen to them during the four years they are in college, years that loom large in our lives.
No 15-year-old can comprehend the differences in classes and activities, the diversity of students, the atmosphere of ambition that will greet them if they gain acceptance to a good university. They cannot know how their perspective will be broadened by classmates from different worlds and professors who are among the best in their field. They cannot know the vast academic and non-academic opportunities that await them but, as their parents, we do.