Frank Bruni talks college admissions madness

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

By Brian Prowse-Gany

High anxiety. It’s that time of year when many high school seniors find out where they may be spending the next four years. Some will be celebrating the fact that they are “the chosen,” while others will be bitterly disappointed. The bad news used to be in a telltale thin envelope. Today rejection is just a mouse click away. Now, as it was then, it’s a difficult pill to swallow.

New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni decided enough was enough. After witnessing a college admissions process spiraling out of control, he delivers a book that is a comforting balm for those who are smarting from the sting of rejection. “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania” offers sage advice and copious research showing that the myopic drive for acceptance has little to do with future success. In fact, he asserts, that rejection may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric sat down with Bruni at Columbia University (acceptance rate: 6.9 percent — more on that later) to discuss his new book, how things got so out of control and how marketing and irrelevant rankings (hello, U.S. News & World Report) have led students (and parents) everywhere to care more about the sticker on the back windshield than whether a college is actually a good fit.

A rocky economy has made families more concerned than ever about their children’s future, and many believe that going to a prestigious college is the key to success. Bruni illustrates how those concerns have prompted students to go to ridiculous lengths to convince admissions officers that they deserve a thumbs-up. In turn, prestigious schools are using extreme measures to ensure they achieve high ranking metrics, which have little to do with the quality of education that college is offering. That desire is fed by a system that forces schools to compete in unhealthy and not necessarily legitimate ways.

“Most admissions deans and people in higher education think U.S. News & World Report rankings are the devil,” jokes Bruni when asked about the metrics used to rate the nation’s “top” colleges.

The beautiful brochures, the excessive e-mails… Colleges today are selling themselves hoping to attract as many applicants as possible. It’s all about the numbers. More applicants equals a smaller percentage of “admits,” ergo, greater selectivity, the name of the game for colleges seeking prestige and exclusivity.
And the Common App has made it easier than ever for colleges to drive up application numbers. Compelled by the anxiety and fear of not getting into ANY school, students are flooding colleges with applications that feel increasingly desperate and capricious.

According to Bruni, an Ivy League education is no guarantee for success. It’s great to go to an Ivy League school for the opportunities to educate yourself, he says, but people shouldn’t rely on the glitter of the name alone.

Bruni illustrates that there is, in fact, no Ivy League recipe for success by pointing out members of the Fortune 500 and prominent politicians who have all made their way through state schools. (Joe Biden and Chris Christie both graduated from the University of Delaware.)

Although they may not carry the flashy brand name, many of these state schools have become more appealing to potential employers, and Bruni explains why.

Bruni recounts the many people who told him how they managed not only to bounce back but to thrive where they ended up going to school. Couric hears from two such students, one a development manager  at CollegeHumor and the other an associate at a top manhattan law firm. Couric also admits her own devastation when she was rejected from her first choice. But like so many others, she survived to tell the tale. If you’re in the same boat, Bruni assures us, you will, too.

NOTE: U.S. News & World Report has challenged some of the statements Frank Bruni makes about the methodology used to determine "Best Colleges" rankings. For the publication's explanation of how those rankings are derived click here.

Watch the complete interview below: