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Beyond Elite: Life After Rejection from a Top College

Higher Education

Nassau Hall on the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy of Flickr user James Loesch.

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)

IN a March 15 article entitled “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni laid out what he saw as the chief problem of the college admissions process: the effects of an increasingly large number of rejections coming from elite colleges.

Take Harvard’s class of 2018 as an example. Of the 34,295 applications the school received, only 2,048 were granted admission, or about 6%. The year before, Harvard set a record for the most applications it has ever received: 35,022. Similarly, Princeton, Penn, Brown, Yale, and Columbia all received large numbers of applications and accepted less than 10% of applicants for the class of 2018. Along with the Ivy League schools, other elite colleges maintain low admission rates. MIT admitted less than 8% of its applicants and Duke only 10.7% of its record-setting 32,506 applicants.

What’s behind this hyper-competitive admissions process? Bruni thinks it’s parents and potential students seeking a means to assess self-worth. “For too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when judgement is made,” writes Bruni.

The article proceeds to show that getting into an elite college isn’t “a conclusive measure of a young person’s worth.” Bruni sees many opportunities found on the other end of a rejection letter from an elite college and he chronicles the stories of two recent graduates who achieved high levels of success despite their initial rejection.

Peter Hart attended a state school after being rejected by his first choice at the University of Michigan. Through his own initiative, Hart managed to secure employment with prestigious management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and later went on to pursue an MBA from Harvard. Another recent graduate, Jenna Leahy, was rejected from all of her top school choices but is now managing a charter school after a stint with Teach for America. “I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” said Leahy.

“People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates.”

Bruni makes several admirable points in critiquing the rush to gain admittance in selective, elite colleges. For one, success may not come immediately or predictably, even for graduates of elite colleges. “People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates,” says Bruni. As an example, Bruni points to a high school classmate of Peter Hart’s – who despite a perceived advantage of attending Yale – also ended up working for Boston Consulting Group.

Along with his argument that a self-directed path to career success is still attainable, Bruni offers a less tangible consolation of attending a lower tier college. “The nature of a student’s college experience – the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed – matters more than the name of the institution attended,” says Bruni.

It is here that Bruni might agree most heartily with former University of Chicago president and liberal arts defender Robert Hutchins. “The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives,” wrote Hutchins.

Bruni is laudable for showing that, through motivation and effort, individuals can form successful career paths on their own merit. Furthermore, in alluding to the less concrete goals of college, Bruni allows for a type of success that only comes through an examined life.

If there are weaknesses in Bruni’s argument, it is his overly narrow definition of success and inadequate description of how college – regardless of reputation – can lead to a meaningful life through self-examination.

In Bruni’s reporting on Peter Hart and Jenna Leahy, he emphasizes their employment by and selection into several highly respected institutions. Bruni also lists individuals who did not attend elite colleges who are in leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies or stand out in the prestigious startup school Y Combinator.

Implied in Bruni’s examples is the idea that organizations like Teach for America and Boston Consulting Group have confirmed that Hart, Leahy, and others like them are “successful.” Bruni’s argument still uses a paradigm that defines success as getting employed and admitted into the most prestigious and well-known companies, graduate schools, and organizations.

“The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”

For Bruni’s argument to work fully, it needs to consider a wider range of recent graduates who may not have ascended to the heights of a prominent career like Hart, Leahy, and Fortune 500 executives.

For every Teach For America and Boston Consulting Group alumnus, there are many more public high-school teachers and assistant managers at local grocery stores. How do these people define success? Might they have had more post-graduate opportunity with an elite college education vs attending a local college?

The reader is also left to wonder how a college education can contribute to a meaningful and successful life beyond giving one career prospects. How do college graduates find meaning in their lives? How might their college educations have contributed to their living an “examined life?”

The article also makes the vague claim that “education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways.” While this is certainly true, there are no examples to back up the claim.

Fraternity members are well familiar with these outside-the-classroom educational opportunities, but these and other students in similar groups are beyond the scope of Bruni’s thesis. No examples of the fraternity members who made lifelong friendships or athletes whose commitment to the team kept them accountable to class attendance are included. These considerations and questions Bruni leaves largely unexplored.

For the best example of how higher education can lead to a life of meaning, Bruni should consider the work of Scott Samuelson and his essay entitled “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers.” Samuelson, a community college professor, has extensive experience teaching philosophy to blue collar workers. “I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer,” recounts Samuelson. “The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination.” Bruni would have done well to find someone similar to Samuelson’s factory worker to articulate the intangible benefits of college education.

Several interesting ideas are presented in “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.” Bruni’s points about not defining self-worth as acceptance into elite colleges and allusion to the intangible benefits of higher education are well received.

However, if the goal of an education is purely focused on post graduate employment in high status institutions, potential students may be justified in feeling disappointment in rejection from elite colleges. After all, for every Peter Hart and Ivy League graduate, there will be many more recent graduates of average colleges who won’t ascend to prominent careers. That doesn’t mean that their college educations were a waste of resources or they won’t have successful lives.

Broadening the scope of success and better showing how college leads to a life of self-examination would further help prove Bruni’s thesis that college is still valuable beyond elite schools. Like the factory worker cited by Scott Samuelson, the reader may find that a college education has led to a lifetime of discovery and a love of learning.


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