How Do We Determine Success? Part 2: The Best University Dilemma

On Saturday, May 30th we will celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2015. In three months these students will go off to university for the first time and I wonder what will greet them upon their arrival. They are attending a diverse range of schools from Yale to Colby College to St. John’s. They will go to big urban schools, small suburban schools, research universities, and liberal arts colleges. About the same time they arrive on campus, our guidance team will present the annual report to our parent community that summarizes the success of the Class of 2015. The question that will be asked more than any other is “How well did we do in college admissions?”

This question is one we are obligated to answer. I fully understand that many parents in our community are investing in their child’s education with the hopes of attaining specific college matriculation outcomes.   However, frequently the criteria we use to determine how well we did is reduced to questions like: How many student got into… the Ivies, the Ivy Plus, the Highly Selective Colleges, the Top 20 or Top 50 US News colleges? As described in our previous blog post we are all enamored by being associated with an elite institution.

Yet many parents approach admission to these elite institutions as if they provide a guarantee of success. Frank Bruni recently published a book entitled Where you go is not who you’ll be. His premise is that the roads to success are many, and no two paths are the same. He shared data that over 60% of Fortune 500 CEO’s did not attend a highly selective school, nor did the majority of United States Senate. In addition, he notes that we tend to mention where someone when to school only if they went to a highly selective school. He holds that while all of the highly selective schools are wonderful educational institutions, we tend to greatly over value their impact on individual success. Below you can view a short video clip in which Bruni summarizes his basic premise. In it he states, “There is no best school; there might be a best school for you, but there is no objective best school.”

Is your dream college overrated? – CBS This Morning Interview with Frank Bruni

Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath, supports Bruni’s findings in a 2013 speech, at the Google Zeitgeist conference, where he uses an economic model to illustrate the minimal benefit of attending a highly selective school. Gladwell states that the biggest factor to long-term success is not if you go to the best school, but that you are the best at the school you attend. You want to be the biggest fish in your pond. Gladwell smartly integrates a powerful psychological theory called relative deprivation theory to further illustrate the importance of selecting the right fit university. If you are best in your class, the chances of you matriculating and finding high levels of success are greater. If you are at the lower end of your class, the chances of your success are diminished.

Malcolm Gladwell – Google Zeitgeist Minds Presentation 2013

If we accept Bruni and Gladwell’s logic, then next fall we should not be asking how many of our kids went to top universities, but instead we should ponder how many of our graduates are thriving and attaining high levels of success at their university.

Simply put, did we find the best-fit college for each graduate?

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2 Responses to How Do We Determine Success? Part 2: The Best University Dilemma

  1. Jean Chew says:

    Hi,
    As parents, why would we choose to nag and drive our children to excel academically than taking our nice coffee, reading and enjoying our life these days. As much as we want to, we would want our kids to grow with self confidence and be successful in their life like us. However, with globalization and the highest populated China churning out only 5% of their elites (mostly based on academia) into today’s world, how are our kids going to cope and stands out in the crowd. I am not sure how this phenomenon is seen but this is the fear and stress of most parents. Do the authors of these books take the China/India factors into consideration? Just a thought.

    • sheckmann says:

      I think you make some excellent points. As a Kindergarten parent I too get caught looking forward and wondering (stressing) about what the future holds for my children. I think the authors main point is that there are many roads to success and the trick is finding university that will help them be their best. Sometimes that is a highly-selective, sometimes it is not. Either is equally good if the child finds their highest level of success.

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