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Parents — and their kids — need to chill out about college

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
The Exchange
Parents — and their kids — need to chill out about college

OMIGOD! What if your high school senior doesn’t get into a top college? Ruin and damnation!!!

That seems to be the fear of many parents these days, judging by the latest trends in college applications. The New York Times reports that, with the latest batch of college acceptance letters freshly mailed, elite universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Duke are rejecting more applicants than ever. Even ace high school students may find it impossible to get into a top university, if only because of overwhelming numbers. It’s as if the 1% are walling off the compound so infiltrators can no longer get in.

That’s terrible news, I guess, but there are some bogus assumptions behind this trend that are leading parents and their kids far astray. Some middle- and upper-class parents put intense pressure on their kids to get into a top, name-brand university, as if that is absolutely crucial to living a successful life as an adult. That’s hogwash. College is important, and a great college no doubt confers privileges that a lesser school doesn’t. But there are still many ways to succeed in America, and coasting along on your college degree is just one of them, maybe. The sense of entitlement that may come with graduating from Impressive U. may even cause cockiness or complacency that harms some grads in the long run.

A sheltered cartel

My 17-year-old daughter just went through the whole process herself, and perhaps the biggest insight for me as an interested observer was that the university system has become almost like a sheltered cartel protected by the mirage of competition.

Newman Daughter (full identity withheld, so back off, Internet trolls) is a strong student who applied to eight schools, including one Ivy League establishment. How did she choose those schools? Mainly by the power of each school’s brand, which determined its popularity among students and their parents, which led to campus visits. If that experience turned out to be pleasing, the school made the list and the application went in.

There was a bit of an effort to sort out the best schools for the money and match up Newman Daughter’s apparent talents with the offerings of various schools, but that was a surprisingly scattershot process, given how much money is involved. I’m sure most parents put way more effort into researching a car than they do their child’s education.

Newman Daughter got turned down by the one Ivy she applied to, along with more than 90% of the other applicants. Across the Ivies, acceptance rates this year ranged from a low of 5.9% at Harvard to a high of 14% at Cornell. A few other top schools had acceptance rates below 10% as well, and many were below 20%. At some schools, acceptance rates today are the lowest on record. As the Times points out, most top schools typically accepted 20% of applicants or more a generation ago.

The same trend is in place at middle-of-the-pack schools, with fewer kids getting in. That, in turn, makes it more important to apply to more schools, lest you get shut out everywhere. It's like a college-application arms race.

Tougher competition

There are many reasons competition for top university slots has gotten so tough, including more people applying to college overall, more foreign applicants, and universal application forms that make it easier to apply to more schools (though you still have to pay admission fees for each application, and often write a unique essay). A Long Island student named Kwasi Enin accomplished the remarkable feat this year of applying to every one of the eight Ivies — itself highly unusual — and getting accepted to all.

I would have loved for Newman Daughter to be one of the chosen 10% at her one Ivy target, and in my completely objective opinion, she is overqualified for the Top 50 school she’ll probably end up going to. Am I upset or disappointed? Not even slightly. Here are just a few of the reasons why:

Like any student at any school, Newman Daughter can still take challenging courses, declare the toughest major(s) and emerge in four years as an attention-getting overachiever, if she chooses to. (Something she will be strongly encouraged to do.)

College is just the beginning, anyway. Newman Daughter has decades of learning ahead of her if she wants to be genuinely successful. The choice of college seems less important the further into your career you get, because you start to realize other choices — where you settle, how well you recover from setbacks, what tradeoffs you’re willing to make — become a lot more important. It will be the same for her.

Newman Daughter may have to work a bit harder to get ahead than her peers from Ivy League schools who developed gold-plated Rolodexes, but that will be good for her. She’ll end up more capable than people who have doors opened for them, instead of opening doors themselves. I have no doubt there will be even grittier kids who have to work harder still to get through school, and will emerge from that crucible experience with a killer instinct that will make them ferocious competitors in the workplace.

And finally, it is still a privilege to obtain higher education at all, something that’s too easy to forget these days. Learning becomes magical when it triggers curiosity and a search for answers. That’s the thing that leads to intellectual and economic enrichment both. No elite badge required.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.