Admit it: we have a problem. This urge to get our kids into prestigious colleges is a sickness, and we are not handling it well. Our children may have a touch of the same illness, but they get over it fast. At the end of the admissions process, no matter what the disappointments, they still get to go to some college--a thrill ride for them, as well as a chance to get away from us, the parents. By contrast, we remain at home, fretting over what might have been and perhaps reliving our own college and life misadventures.
I don't think there is any cure for that. We are addicts, with a classic emotional dependence on something that is not good for us. The only solution is to recognize it and find ways to deal with it. I've been through it myself with three children. Here are 10 realizations I've clung to over the years:
Getting into a brand-name school does not improve your life. A 1999 study by Mellon Foundation researcher Stacy Berg Dale and Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger shows that students with the char-acter traits that bring success in life--persistence, charm, humor--are doing just as well financially 20 years after college graduation regardless of whether they went to a college with high average SATs.
Teaching is often better in schools you've never heard of. Anyone who's ever served time as an undergraduate in an Ivy League institution (yes, I'm one) knows how bad some big lecture courses can be, while the list of no-name schools with great college teachers is very long.
All those smart kids rejected by top schools make lesser-known colleges great. If you think for a minute about the quality of the people not getting into Harvard, Yale and Princeton, you have to envy the schools that are going to get them.
Very few of the richest Americans went to Harvard. Here are the alma maters of the first 10 Americans on the Forbes list of the world's richest individuals, including several high-tech billion-aires who never got their bachelor's degrees: Harvard (dropout); Nebraska-Lincoln; Washington State (dropout); Trinity of San Antonio, Texas; Oklahoma; Arkansas; Wooster; Arkansas; Illinois (dropout); UT-Austin (dropout).
Very few of the most powerful people in America went to Yale. Yes, George W. Bush and John Kerry spent time in New Haven. But the vast majority of presidents did not attend the Ivies, and most of the governors listed in the Almanac of American Politics 2004 went to places like Alabama, Ouachita Baptist or no college at all (Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner). As final proof, ask the person at your office who has the power to fire you where she went to college. In my case, it's the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Very few of our heroes went to Princeton. Here are some admired Americans and the colleges they attended: Colin Powell, City College of New York; Billie Jean King, California State-Los Angeles; Warren Buffett, Nebraska-Lincoln; Rudolph Giuliani, Manhattan College; Bill Cosby, Temple; Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State; Garrison Keillor, Minnesota; Ken Burns, Hampshire. Muhammad Ali did not attend college at all.
Career contacts are just as good at Nebraska as at Dartmouth. As you can see, some very influential people went to some underappreciated schools. Every college in America has produced powerful alumni who can help you get somewhere. The question is whether you have the gumption to approach these people and ask for advice, and maybe a job.
This is not the most important moment in the applicant's life. People who compare picking a college to picking a mate are wrong. It's much more like buying a house. You want something that looks good, with enough rooms and pleasant neighbors. It is an expensive investment, to be sure, but if it doesn't work out...
You can always dump a bad choice. At least 20 percent of students who start in one four-year college switch to another before they graduate, and that doesn't even begin to count the students who start in two-year colleges and then move to four-year schools.
Remember Steven Spielberg. The famous film schools at UCLA and USC rejected him, so he went to California State-Long Beach and made several student films there. His parents eventually found something to be proud of. Would that the rest of us were that farsighted.