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Does Where Your Kids Go To College Really Matter That Much?

(CNN) — Before you “help” your kid get into an Ivy League school through various methods of chicanery, take a very deep breath and consider why it’s so important to you that they get into an elite school.
If your reflexive answer is, “Because my kid wants to go there,” then consider who may have influenced that desire. There is a reason you both share it.
A much less fraught start to the college scouting process would be a values exercise. As you and your teen consider what’s most important in life, use those factors — happiness, purpose, power, wealth accumulation, adventure, knowledge, creative freedom and expression, etc — as a filtering device. Stanford, Harvard and Yale may not be ideal for some of those values.
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Along with the quality of a school’s individual degrees, you should seriously weigh other happiness factors like financial debt size, distance from family, a school’s culture and politics, where friends are going to college, and where the school is located on a map. Some kids will love living in New York City, some will hate it.
More prestigious colleges offer access to great professors and help fast-track a career (especially financially). But with those advantages may come greater performance pressure or more access to craven temptations. Remember that no matter where you go to college, what you get out of it is mainly determined by what you put into it.
There probably is an ideal school for your child out there, but it’s also likely that it isn’t one of the more elite universities, despite their promise of delivering students the good life. No college holds a monopoly on success. And who’s definition of success are we talking about anyway?
A few years ago, a Gallup-Purdue University poll of college graduates found that “the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their … current well-being.” And furthermore, graduates of public colleges and those from private colleges were equally “deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work.” College factors that actually improved those scores, according to the poll? Whether students had professors who cared about them and the job experiences they had outside the classroom.
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And even if we’re talking about traditional notions of success, an elite university is not a prerequisite either. Many rich, famous and powerful people (not that those are qualities which to aspire, though some do) went to small colleges you’ve likely never heard of. Ronald Reagan went to Illinois’ Eureka College; David Letterman went to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana; Tom Hanks went to Chabot College in Hayward, California and George Lucas went to Modesto Junior College in California. Maybe it helped that they were all white men, but they also didn’t need their parent’s money, secret societies or connections to the pillars of power to make a name for themselves.
I teach part-time at a small women’s college in Decatur, Georgia called Agnes Scott. It’s a values-led school, as evidenced in their motto, “Educating women to think deeply, live honorably and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of their times.” Some of these young women will no doubt find fame and riches, but that’s not what they value most when I talk to them about their career aspirations. They want to change the world for the better, not conquer it.
In a few years when my older daughter starts seriously thinking about college I’ll share the parable of the Dad Who Falsely Thought He Who Knew What He Wanted And Lucked Out Anyway.
I went to a large state school that was my last choice. I didn’t even visit the school until orientation. I wanted to move far from home and live in New York or New England. And while I got in to most of the liberal arts schools I applied to up there, I went to the in-state University of Maryland because it was much cheaper and I knew it was still a very good school.
But I quickly grew to love it, gorging on many of the great experiences from its large buffet. My journalism degree was fortified with paid jobs on the daily campus newspaper. My philosophy degree taught me how to think more sharply and write more clearly. Proximity to Washington DC was fun for going out but also helped land internships with my congressman and in the White House without missing a semester at school. And a state university exchange program led to four months at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks for the cost of a round trip, cross-country Amtrak ticket. I loved college so much it’s hard to image another school that would have been a better fit for me. I had amazing professors who cared about me and incredible jobs outside the classroom.
Going to an elite school may have even curtailed the scenic route of the career I’ve had since — teaching, writing travel guides, traveling around the world, dabbling in TV writing and years writing and editing for the largest media companies on the planet.
If I’d gone to a more prestigious school my life would have been different, I have no doubt. But different isn’t the same as better, happier, more fun, more fulfilling, or wiser.
Leave it to the kids to figure out most of this college journey on their own. And use your waning parental influence over your teenager to impart values over trying to game the system.
The-CNN-Wire
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