Picking the Right College Is a Vital, Unimportant Process

Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated April 27, 2001
By Rachel Toor

April is the sweetest month. At least for the small percentage of applicants who get a thick envelope from their first-choice college. For those (and their parents) who receive an anemic thin letter of rejection, the month brings the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, and finally adjustment. By the time fall rolls around, most kids merrily go off to a college that they are convinced is right for them.

So how much does it matter where you go to college?

Many people, especially those who went to “prestigious” institutions, think that it matters a lot: a trump card to pull out in need. A fancy degree can help in getting that first (or later) job or in getting into graduate school. It can, in fact, help you for the rest of your life: make you a member of an elite club, regardless of whether you join the alumni association. Each month, I see advertisements for “The Right Stuff,” an “Introduction Service” for anyone who is a “graduate or faculty member from our group of excellent schools” (think the Ivies, Stanford, Smith, M.I.T., etc.). “Date someone who knows that The Uncertainty Principle is not about first date etiquette,” it reads.

When I was an admissions officer at Duke University, I had parents tell me that they didn’t want to be embarrassed when acquaintances at a cocktail party asked where their child went to college. I also met parents who argued that, having themselves come of age in a recession, they wanted to make sure their child had every possible economic advantage. Rightly or wrongly, they believed that going to an elite school would provide a financial leg up.

Folks often point out how a Harvard man (feel free to insert another institution) will somehow work into the first five minutes of conversation the fact that he is a Harvard man. It’s funny, but it’s also evolutionarily useful: It does something for him. You may think he’s a jerk, but you will also, on some level, be impressed (unless, of course, you went to Yale). This kind of name-dropping serves a purpose. It’s a shorthand route to status and, like all credentials, tells you nothing specific. You don’t know if the Harvard man was admitted because he was a legacy, a football player, or the son of a rich philanthropist. You also don’t know how well he did in college. It’s like the old joke: What do you call the person who graduates last in her medical-school class? Doctor.

So a brand name matters because people think it matters. But there’s more. Part of what you get when attending a highly selective college or university is the benefit of a rigorous admissions process: a handpicked class that contains more talented and accomplished people than any group you are ever likely to meet again. Your peers often provide a better education than the classroom. It’s in conversations about string theory with fellow students in the dining halls, late-night marathon sessions arguing about the existence of God, lifting weights in the gym and discussing the weirdness of the Electoral College, and speaking tentatively about the vagaries of sex that the value of being in a select group comes out. And sure, college is also about making the friends, the connections, who will follow you through life.

Of course, every institution of higher education has a core of students who are intellectually engaged. It’s just that the selective admissions process appears to guarantee a higher percentage who’d rather talk about Kant than kegs.

However, the price of getting to be a Harvard Woman or a Princeton Tiger is that, even on today’s fairly diverse campuses, you may become less like yourself and more like your classmates. Most colleges still have a dominant culture.

People who are 18 to 22 years old are highly susceptible to acculturation. When you observe students during their four years of college, you notice the changes in dress, hairstyles, even speech. Gone is the blue eye shadow from high school, replaced by black fingernail polish. Boys from cold rural areas trade in down parkas for cool long black overcoats. They don’t just look more like their classmates than they did at the beginning: They may also think more like them. I used to say that our students entered Duke more interesting than they left it.

I was recently having a conversation with academic friends who teach at places with reputations for eggheady kids — in this case, Chicago, Columbia, and Reed. What astonished me was that my friends were saying the same things about their students: By senior year, many of the kids stop talking in class. They are intimidated not so much by their professors, but by other students. They no longer feel as confident as they did when they were at the top of their high school. The most important thing is belonging. Perhaps, on a few campuses, fitting in means appearing more intellectual. But where is that the case, if not at Chicago, Columbia, or Reed? At Duke they may wear Abercrombie, drink beer, and go to basketball games, while at Chicago they may dress in black and smoke endless cigarettes, but the result is not much different. They have been acculturated.

There’s something to the fact that prospective students and their parents think that they can get a sense of the right “fit” by traveling around to college campuses. It’s because, even at a glance, you can get a bead on the dominant culture at most places. Driving past the gym at Duke and seeing students camping out to get basketball tickets tells you something. I was at Caltech recently. The students I met were all unique, highly individual, contentious, quirky people. But they were all like that. They talked about how difficult it was to feel at home, to be comfortable. I was interested to hear reputed dining-hall rules: no “nerd talk” (“nerd talk,” like Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, was not defined), no reading at the table, and no language other than English. That told me a lot about Caltech.

Similarly, while hanging out not long ago with students at Cornell, I kept hearing the same answer to the question “Why Cornell?” A few had applied early decision, but most said, “I came because I didn’t get into…” They were each happy at Cornell, but they were also united in a kind of culture of defeat. What does that do to the teenage psyche? And to the sensibilities of the place? (Again, the reader can substitute any number of excellent institutions where phenomenally talented students see themselves as “rejects” of “better schools.”)

At the fancy schools, kids react in various ways to the transition from big fish/small pond to small fish/ocean. Some develop an arrogance in direct proportion to their feelings of inadequacy; others are humbled. A small group define themselves in opposition to the dominant culture. I know a number of “intellectuals” at Duke who boast that they have never attended a basketball game. “Shane?” they ask, raising an eyebrow. “It’s a great movie.”

So how much does it matter where you go to college? In terms of classroom education and level of undergraduate teaching, I think there’s probably not a great difference among the many “good” private colleges that can afford to hire good faculty members and offer some small classes. I also know from years in academic publishing that there are equally good big state universities — and non-elite private universities — that have equally good faculty members. The professors there may be less accessible to students, simply by dint of numbers, but they — and their graduate students — may still be excellent teachers. And researchers. And we all know talented academics stuck in the boondocks.

Moreover, plenty of people will tell you that they went to a perfectly stinky school and nonetheless managed to become extremely successful, thank you very much. It’s also the case that some of the most interesting, most intellectually alive people I know are autodidacts, either never graduating from college or never going. They seem to have a different relationship to learning — they read because they want to, not because they have been told to.

Where you go to college, I think, ultimately has to do with issues of social class. More than anything else, the fancy schools offer access to money, prestige, and power. For some students, that is old hat (the admissions process does, after all, privilege those who are already privileged); but for others, it means that their lives may be appreciably different from those of their parents.

I find myself now, in the wake of April acceptance and rejection letters, thinking about what an odd time this is in the life of high-school seniors. Once they send in their tuition deposits, they become members of a community that they neither know nor understand, but to which they still feel a strange connectedness. It’s a time of fantasy and potential. The first thing many kids do after being admitted to “their” college is to broadcast their choice on a T-shirt or car sticker. That name may well become a part of who they are and who they will become.

So how much does it matter where you go to college? I suspect the answer is both “a lot” and “not at all.”

Rachel Toor, a former book editor and admissions officer at Duke University, writes frequently for The Chronicle. Her book, Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall.

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