educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Making college a success? Meet people. Do things.

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So what kind of magical thing will happen to you at college? What mysterious formula will make it all worthwhile?

It may not be that complicated. Recently, I read a book I think should be required reading for parents and students entering today’s college admissions trudge: Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Read this book: If it doesn’t change your life, it may make it at least a lot more pleasant.

Using a variety of evidence, Bruni strongly builds the argument depicted in his title. For instance, he cites the Gallup-Purdue Index study of 30,000 U.S. college graduates; according to that study, graduates who had these experiences “perform markedly better on every measure of long-term success compared with graduates who missed the mark on these experiences”:

  1. a professor who made them excited about learning
  2. professors who cared about them as a person
  3. a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  4. worked on a long-term project
  5. had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  6. were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

Look at the first three. In the vast complexity that college can appear to be and the esoteric intricacies of ratings and data, the key in many cases is finding a good person to work with.

Citing that study, Bruni too extols the virtue of mentors for not just work success but for increasing a person’s odds “of thriving in their well-being” (p. 150). He also emphasizes that a wide variety of schools can lead to the highest levels of college and life success, but, unfortunately, rankings and ratings mania and accompanying elitism have warped our appreciation of institutions and made the college admissions process into a painful march for many students and their parents. Here’s Bruni about U.S. News rankings:

In the case of U.S. News, they’re largely subjective. They’re easily manipulated. They rely on metrics and optics of dubious relevance. They’re about vestigial reputation and institutional wealth as much as any evidence that the children at a given school are getting an extraordinary education and graduating with a sturdy grip on the future and the society around them. They’re an attention-getting, money-making enterprise for U.S. News, not an actual service to the college-bound. They don a somber suit of authority, but it’s a hustler’s threads. (pp. 80-1)

Bruni draws on some heavy hitters to support his arguments. Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College, says about U.S. News: “You measure what you can count easily, and then often fail to measure what really counts” (p. 84). And Condoleezza Rice is quoted as saying, “You will find faculty at almost every college who are vibrant and exciting” (p. 94).

There’s this sense that we walk into the great halls of Zenith U and the sweetness washes over us, bathing us in brilliance. But, your actions, your volition and energy, no matter where you attend, play a major part in college success. Bruni puts it this way: “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones” (p. 92). Inherent in the mentor experience, for instance, is that you were proactive in starting and cultivating that relationship.

Bruni’s book is full of wisdom about the application/admissions experience. Alas, for many, that experience will create anxiety and woe instead of excitement. “We have a plentitude and variety of settings for learning that are unrivaled,” he says of U.S. higher ed. “In light of that, the process of applying to college should and could be about ecstatically rummaging through those possibilities and feeling energized, even elated, by them” (p. 128).

Find a place that seems like a good fit, then meet people and do things — that’s what we should be telling our kids. We’ll all rest easier if we do.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Making college a success? Meet people. Do things.”

  1. Scott, Meeting people and doing things. Yes. When I was a sophomore, I couldn’t study in my dorm (too noisy), so I dropped by a friend’s room and, at his invitation, studied alongside him in the midst of quiet and focus. When we finished, he’d enthuse to me about his latest discoveries in his major, Art History. This went on for two years, and we’d visit the National Gallery of Art together during vacations–we both lived near D.C.–where two summers after graduation, his wife and I showed up for his first tour in the gallery. We kept in touch over the years, and when I wrote an art history paper for grad school courses I had to take to teach art history at a Community College, he gave me very rigorous commentary until I had put it into publishable shape, and in fact it was published. I have not talked or otherwise communicated to him for years, but I owe to him a familiarity and love of art history, a couple of publications, and a manner of communicating enthusiasm for whatever topic is what I am teaching.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation! Looks like a great Christmas gift for our Senior in high school!!

  3. Scott,
    Last paragraph is spot on!!! So far , we’re resting easy (and keeping our fingers crossed..Ha ha )

  4. Ordering a copy of Bruni’s book for myself and Jack! This article was perfect timing for our family!

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