The importance of disconnecting higher education from prestige

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Claire Moore '22

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be offers a refreshing perspective on college admissions.

Each year, high school seniors engage in the college admissions process.  While higher education should broaden perspectives and increase employment opportunities, the application and decision processes have morphed into an obsession with prestige.  Journalist Mr. Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Anecdote to the College Admissions Mania seeks to end this harmful narrative.  At Sacred Heart Greenwich, Mr. Nat Smitobol, Director of College Guidance, helps students navigate college admissions and offers insight into disconnecting higher education from prestige. 

Mr. Frank Bruni endeavors to dispel the mania surrounding higher education.  Claire Moore ’22

In his collection of research, interviews, and anecdotes, Mr. Bruni recounts stories, including those of Fulbright Scholars, politicians, and authors who did not study in Ivy League universities.  The majority of Mr. Bruni’s case studies attended colleges with little widespread recognition, yet experienced incredible career success.  Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be argues that determination, inner drive, and interdisciplinary experiences lead to achievement rather than a prestigious alma mater.  

Even in today’s virtual climate, applicants should spend time thoroughly researching schools and engaging in visit opportunities to avoid basing college decisions on prestige.  Mr. Smitobol discussed how students can assemble a diverse list of colleges without reputation as the main consideration.  

“The notion of finding one dream school is a silly one, especially in this current college admissions landscape,” Mr. Smitobol said.  “The beauty of our higher education system is that there are so many schools that are amazing.  Students should have a group of schools they would be super happy to attend if admitted.  One more piece of advice I would give is to get multiple snapshots.  At the end of the day, the research still shows that “the tour guide” is still the most influential experience in making a decision.  I love hearing about visits with extraordinary tour guides, but just because you are randomly paired up with someone you do not click with should not be the only reason you dislike a school.  Finally, it is so easy to visit a reach or aspirational school.  Make sure to include and fall in love with some “likely schools” early in the process, too.  Just because it is a likely school does not mean it is not going to be an awesome experience.” 

Mr. Nat Smitobol provides insight on the college admissions process.  Courtesy of the Sacred Heart Communications Dept.

The highly-coveted Ivy League, comprised of Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University, admits 2,000 students per year from their respective admissions pools, according to The New York Times.  On average, the number of applicants approaches 40,000.  Acceptance rates range from 3.4 percent to 6.1 percent, according to cbsnews.com.  Across the globe, high-achieving students pin their hopes on a spot at one of the eight schools under the misguided impression that an Ivy League education will guarantee happiness and success. 

Mr. Smitobol hopes that applicants will consider college prospects through a broader lens and take advantage of the diverse array of educational experiences available in the United States.  

“I will say it again – what really separates our higher education system from others around the world is the number of schools that we have that are phenomenal places,” Mr. Smitobol said.  “By now, you have heard of my Olive Garden versus Gino’s of Bay Ridge story.  Just because something is not highly visible or highly selective does not mean that it is not going to be good.”

The 2020-2021 college admissions season marked an increase in selectivity following nationwide conversion to Test-Optional policies among universities, according to forbes.com.  This trend heightened competition to highly selective schools as a record-breaking number of students submitted applications.  The Common App received 6 million applications to member institutions in 2021, a 1 million student increase from the 2019-2020 application cycle, according to forbes.com.  Waived standardized test requirements, the ability to submit numerous applications using the Common App, and the inability to visit campuses under coronavirus protocols all hindered the opportunity for many seniors to narrow their application lists and added to the competition.  Both rejections and acceptances were unexpected in the huge pools of applicants. 

As Mr. Bruni writes, such a volatile process should not define an applicant’s view of themself or of their academic achievement.  Mr. Smitobol hopes to combat this destructive pattern by educating students on the college admission process early in their high school years. 

“I want to see students engaging in the process earlier to ameliorate the stress associated with the college admissions process,” Mr. Smitobol said.  “When they learn more about it formally, I want students to use that information to feel empowered to make good decisions leading up to the application process.”

Social media also contributes to feelings of inadequacy surrounding college admissions as it is easy to compare oneself to peers or classmates who are highlighting their achievements.  Platforms such as Instagram quickly spread news of college acceptances, adding to the pressure placed on students to attend a well-known school worthy of “bragging rights.”  In addition, social media furthers the damaging idea of “dream schools” by romanticizing the college experience.  Especially amidst application stress and internet illusions, Mr. Smitobol believes that it is important for seniors to keep perspective.  

The Class of 2021 poses in their respective college attire to celebrate their academic achievement.  Courtesy of Sacred Heart Communications Dept.

“Seniors need to savor their last year, especially at a place like Sacred Heart,” Mr. Smitobol said.  “We have so many amazing traditions so it is important to not lose sight of the big picture.  I also tell our students (and parents) to never let this silly college admissions process define our character.  For students in all grades, it is so important to develop mentoring relationships.  We have incredible instructors and mentors here on campus and every student has the opportunity to, and should, feel connected to multiple adults on campus.” 

Perhaps the most pertinent reminder in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be is that the “mania” surrounding prestige in college admissions is a privilege.  Since 2000, college tuition has risen by 80 percent while median household income has decreased by 7 percent, according to propublica.org.  The lack of affordability in higher education poses a barrier to lower and middle-income students who cannot afford college or must take out loans to attend.  Although we should not discount the stress of admissions on every applicant, an important aspect of keeping perspective is recognizing that attending any university is a privilege. 

I also tell our students to never let this silly college admissions process define our character.”

— Mr. Nat Smitobol

Even after completing the college application process, I find myself returning to Mr. Bruni’s book again and again.  It has shifted my worldview and taught me to look beyond external achievement as a measure of self-worth.  Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be is a comforting reminder that success is self-defined and that finding genuine passions supersedes the name on one’s diploma. 

“Mr. Bruni’s book is an important reminder for everyone to consider,” Mr. Smitobol said.  “Even though it is a few years old, America’s obsession with prestige needs to be called out every so often.  It is interesting to look at the first use of the word prestige in the English language.  Apparently, we borrowed it in the seventeenth century from France and it was initially used to refer to an  “illusion” or “having the ability to trick.”  I am not saying prestigious colleges are not great, but there are hundreds of lesser-known colleges that are amazing places.”

Featured Image by Claire Moore ’22