In How to Survive the College Admissions Madness, Frank Bruni writes consoling advice for parents and high school seniors wrapped up in college admissions and set on going to elite colleges. Although the obsession with elite-or-nothing is more a New York thing than the American universal he treats it as, it is common enough to be worth an opinion column, and he does as nice job of providing a couple of stories that counter the obsession. (No data though—his column is strictly anecdotal, with 5 anecdotes.)
He recognizes that he is really talking to a small segment of the population:
I’m describing the psychology of a minority of American families; a majority are focused on making sure that their kids simply attend a decent college—any decent college—and on finding a way to help them pay for it. Tuition has skyrocketed, forcing many students to think not in terms of dream schools but in terms of those that won’t leave them saddled with debt.
But the core of the advice he gives is applicable to anyone going to college, not just to those seeking elite admission:
… the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience—the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed—matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.
In any case, there’s only so much living and learning that take place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.
The elites have some resources to offer that colleges with lesser financial endowments find difficult to match, but any good enough college can provide opportunities to those who look for them. For some students, being one of the best at a slightly “lesser” institution may result in more opportunities, more faculty attention, and more learning than being just above average in an elite school. (And, vice versa, of course—moving from being the best in high school to run-of-the-mill at an elite college can also be an important wake-up call.)
Currently, the American college landscape is very broad, offering a lot of different choices with different prices and different strengths. Unfortunately, many of our state legislatures and governors have decided that only one model should be allowed—the fully private, job-training institution—and are doing everything they can to kill off the public colleges and universities that have been the backbone of US post-secondary education since the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.
The colleges established by the land grant acts were intended as practical places, not primarily social polish for the rich (as most private colleges were then, and most of the elites are now). The purpose of these public colleges was
without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.[7 U.S.C. § 304, as quoted in Wikipedia]
Although agriculture is no longer as large an employer as it was in the 19th century, research in agriculture at the land-grant universities is still driving a major part of the US economy, and engineering (quaintly referred to as “the mechanic arts”) is still a major employer and a primary route for upward social mobility in the US. The land-grant colleges were explicitly not intended as bastions for the rich to defend their privilege (as our legislators want to make them, by raising tuition to stratospheric levels), but for “liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”—colleges for working-class people.
I think that it would benefit the US for legislatures to once again invest in the “education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” and for parents and students to look seriously at the state-supported colleges, before the madness of privatization wipes them out.
(Disclaimer: I teach at one campus of the University of California, and my son attends another—neither of them land-grant colleges, but both imperiled by the austerity politics of the California legislature, who see their legacy in building prisons and making sure the rich don’t pay taxes, not in providing education for the working class.)