Ivy, schmivy: Author decries frenzy over elite colleges

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Frank Bruni has spoken of late in any number of tony suburbs, and in each one he’s been told, “Now you’re at ground zero of college aspiration.”

But he wasn’t. Ground zero is everywhere — and as he explains in a terrific new book, it shouldn’t be.

The competition for slots in America’s most selective colleges is ever more fierce. The rejections seem ever more cruel. The test-preparation and application-buffing businesses feeding on the insecurities of high school kids and their parents are ever more hungry.

Yes or no, from Yale or Georgetown or the University of Michigan. Win or lose. Future bright, or future bleak.

“What madness,” Bruni writes. “And what nonsense.”

The latest round of rejoicing or rejection played out only weeks ago. You’re in, and you’re set. You’re out, and you’re doomed.

Now summer is approaching, with more family visits planned to the same standard swanky schools while splendid alternatives sit ignored or undervalued.

Enjoy the trip. While you’re in your hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut, or Washington, D.C., though, read “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admission Mania.”

Bruni, a New York Times columnist and former Detroiter, doesn’t have kids. But he has nieces, nephews, eyes, ears, and a long history of interviews with interesting and successful people.

Many of those people, it struck him, did not attend the schools that his friends’ children were hyperventilating about.

As a reporter, he says, “I’m thinking, ‘These things do not add up. Somebody needs to spend time talking about this.’ ”

What he’s saying is that yes, the Ivies and Duke and Stanford are terrific schools, but they’re not the only stellar spots or the only springboards to success.

And by the way, those annual college rankings in U.S. News & World Report are nonsense.

Ratings list questionable

Without getting deeply into chapter, verse and equation, the U.S. News ratings that have become almost sacred are subjective, easily manipulated, and in some ways almost comical.

One of the criteria, for instance, is reputation, meaning U.S. News rewards schools for already being listed in U.S. News.

Still, the applications pour in to Stanford and Princeton, and the more kids they reject, the more exclusive and attractive they seem.

Meanwhile, Bruni checked the biographies of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies, and fewer than a third listed undergraduate degrees from elite schools.

At Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, an incubator for smart, driven young women, Kristen Casey has emphasized a similar point for years.

She’ll remind distraught students that they might well be better off in the honors college at a Miami University or Michigan State than in the masses at what seems to a 17-year-old to be a dream school.

“It’s not necessarily where you go,” says Casey, the chair of the guidance department, “but what you do with where you are.”

Tweak a few words and she’s been preaching the title of Bruni’s book.

Many paths to success

In ways both anecdotal and numerical, Bruni emphasizes that 1) breaks even out, 2) talent eventually rises, 3) the number of actual openings for nonathletes and nonlegacies at elite schools is minuscule, and 4) a stranger’s distant evaluation of your performance in high school is ultimately meaningless.

Also, he points out, the 10 institutions that produced the most Fulbright Scholars last year included Michigan at No. 2 and supposed party school Arizona State at No. 3, with several less lauded public universities also outstripping half the Ivy League.

He continues to hear sad tales of rejection, Bruni says, but he also hears encouraging stories from college juniors or recent graduates who realize the school they grudgingly settled for was, in fact, the perfect fit.

For his part, Bruni turned down Yale for a full scholarship and what turned out to be a fondly remembered experience at North Carolina.

His wish now is that frenzied high schoolers “take 33.3 percent of the energy they use worrying about how to get into the most august, venerated school they can” — and use it instead to focus on how to get the most out of college itself.