It’s not the College, it’s the Person

We have become a nation obsessed with the idea that not only is a college education a must for everyone, virtually an inalienable right, but that to have a truly successful life, one must attend the very best college possible. This myth, yes it is a myth, not only creates unreasonable stress on high school students and their families, but it trickles down to preschools, even to the crib! Parents have been sold unproven theories that so much of a child’s abilities are influenced by the earliest days, months, and years of development, the notion of the so-called critical periods for brain development, that the anxiety starts early and persists throughout the life of the child.

Please hear my pleas. It matters not one whit what college you go to. Many people who are going to college don’t belong there. Playing classical music to your fetus, spending extra time educating your toddler, and getting your child into the most academically challenging preschool is the wrong way to be spending your time and money.

I have been expressing these views for many years. Periodically a new piece of research comes along that reasserts my position. The most recent is an extensive study that looked at students who graduated from a wide range of schools with a 200 point difference in their freshman class average SAT scores. Following these students about 20 years into their careers, once again the data shows that if you account for natural talent, school choice matters not. In other words, a bright, motivated person has the same likelihood of success independent of the college attended.

Choice of college tends to influence the first job because there’s not much else for an employer to go on. But, after that, it’s what you accomplish in the real world that matters and by then many other factors come into play. Which factors matter depends upon your choice of field but people skills rank high on the list, something nobody even bothers to teach anywhere along the way. Add to the mix the fact that most college grads end up in careers totally unrelated to what they majored in and then look at the significant number of students that never graduate college, and you begin to get a more honest picture of what is going on out there.

Part of the problem is that school is designed in a way that doesn’t even remotely resemble the real world. Successful students are not simply the smartest kids, but those who have academic type smarts combined with academic type personalities. The latter refers to children who are more willing to be passive learners, follow the rules rather than questioning them, who learn best through language skills, and who are naturally organized since we still insist on asking students to take a number of unrelated courses at the same time. In addition there is increasing evidence for the concept of “multiple intelligences” and that school focuses at best on just a few of them.

The result is that many students experience frustration and failure in school that conveys a message of being stupid when they are not. It is more a matter of the failure of the system to uncover and build on the individual student’s strengths. Parents get drawn into this in a number of unfortunate ways, primarily by reinforcing the school’s message that something is wrong with their child. Also far too many of the precious few hours parents have to spend with their children is spent battling about homework and grades.

If we can’t change the schools, I wish parents could at least begin to recognize that the best grades and the “best college” are not the goals of child rearing. Many students who struggle through school will do very well in the real world if they leave school with a reasonable modicum of self-respect and are able to find something they love to do and have some skill at doing it. How many of you complain when your children only do well in the courses they like? Yet, once out of school, don’t we search for something we love doing so we can make a career of it? Sure the notion of exposing our young to a well-rounded education is noble and has some intrinsic value. Just don’t focus on the grades but rather the exposure.

Many high school students are either waiting to hear from their college of choice or are beginning their search for that college. Students and their families are increasingly obsessed with padding “resumes” in order to get into the highest rated college, whether it fits their child or not. I much prefer to urge students to think of their four years of college as a living experience rather than an academic one. Thus, the primary factors in making a choice of college should be similar to ones you and I would consider if we had a choice of jobs in different parts of the country. Where would you like to live for the next four years? What’s the best fit for your personality and interests? Where will you feel most comfortable?

For many high school grads that best fit is not college. It may be working for a few years to discover what they are good at in the real world and then getting some training in those skills. For others, it may be just getting some life experience, especially in some far corner of the world that is very different from home. These young people often need a chance to mature a bit more because life at home and in school often does not foster the confidence and awareness needed to help them decide where they might find success in their life. Too often parents are afraid if their child takes some time off from going straight for that degree that will be the end of getting any degree.

We are too obsessed with degrees and not enough with the development of the person. In the long road of life, it is the person that will matter, not the degree.