The College Experience

My daughter once wanted to be a veterinarian, visit but as she got older she realized that she couldn’t deal with blood and the inevitable euthanasia situations. But she is an excellent artist for her age, and and she “specializes” in anime-inspired drawings. After returning from PAX East this year, it dawned on me that there were a lot of educators who had booths at the show that were providing information on game design and development, as well as animation and 3D artistry. So when I got home, I started looking around…at colleges…for my 14 year old child.

It made me feel old. But I also feel that this is the right time to be doing this. Of course, it all hinges on her maintaining her interest in art and animation. If she decides she wants to get into another line of work, all current bets are off. But 14 isn’t that far from 18, and figuring out options now will at least cover the discovery aspect for when we have to buckle down and really get to work.

It seems timely in other ways, because I’ve recently heard several stories on the radio talking about colleges and their practices. The majority of these stories have been…unpleasant and unflattering to these institutions. Today, for example, I learned about the application to acceptance ratio, and how some “top tier” schools will actively and personally encourage high-scoring SAT students to apply, only to deny most of them so that the college can crow about their acceptance ratio. Most of the stories I’ve heard have been focusing on the widely held belief that all college students are aiming for the highest level name college that offers what they want simply because there’s a mental link between well known schools and the rate of success of its graduates. But these stories then throw down that going to a prestigious school only offers a higher rate of bumping into someone who might help your career later on, and that the quality of education varies wildly between the top tier schools, and in some cases can prove inferior when compared to lesser known or even relatively unknown schools.

I went to a state school which happened to have a good reputation for biology (which is what I was in for), but there were a lot of flaws with the “concept” of the college experience. Up through high school, you’re graded on your performance. Grades and GPA are the meters upon which you’re evaluated. When you enter college, the gears shift dramatically. You can do really, really well in college, but you may find that you’re ill-equipped to enter your professional field because once you’re in college, it’s not what you know, it’s almost entirely who you know. That’s why I’m working as a web/application developer: I wasn’t one of those outgoing, always at the professor’s office hours kinds of student. I did my work — and did pretty well, except in math-related subjects — but I had absolutely no one wanting to look at me because I lacked linkage to anyone of note in the biology field. I once begged for a work study position by offering to wash glassware, and the one time I did stop by a professor’s office to ask her thoughts on what kind of studies would fit into a specific career, she made no effort to hide the fact that she felt I was wasting her time.

Still, the name brand of the school never meant much to me, and I’m thinking the same when looking at destinations for my daughter. What a name means to people doesn’t necessarily equate to the education that students receive, especially when the name is linked more to sports, or the mythology that “the best” CEOs and other people in powerful positions went to Ivy League schools (Surprise! Most do not). No matter where you go, two plus two will still equal four, so it’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to pay for the lesson of learning that truism.

What matters to me the most is that my daughter receive an education in the subject of her choice that best fits what she wants to use it for. It may be difficult, as even large schools with many resources only have so many to use towards individualizing their courses. I have…concerns about how well my daughter will fit into a framework which isn’t constantly focused on the narrow band of what she wants to accomplish, but there’s still a whole four years to go to train her that “well rounded” is the base, and it’ll be up to her to use that base upon which to build her own, personal specifics.

Right now, I’m not overly concerned with the process of looking at colleges for my daughter. It’s certainly not in her mind at this point. I’m passively collecting and perusing institutions, finding ways to eliminate those which are for-profit, tuition mills, or atrocious reviews from current and former students. It’s really easy for colleges and universities to talk up their programs, their resources, their alumni, and their exclusivity, but it’s another thing to see whole swaths of people kicking their alma mater to the curb. Those are the cons you need to put together with the pros put out by the marketing departments to get a good sense of what lies in the middle, and if that middle is worthwhile enough to apply to.

  1. Wanted to share this data too, because I think it tells the side of the story beyond that of Fortune 500 CEOs:

    Ultimately, what she gets out of college will be tied to what she puts in. It will still be a lot about who she knows, but the great animators will likely not be at Harvard, or at least have a good chance of also being elsewhere.

    I think too that a lot of the value of a college education is in how she can apply it. She may get an Animation degree but lose jobs to someone with a B.A who has a great portfolio. I’d really encourage her to TALK to people in whichever business she wants to enter to get their advice about what employers are looking for.

    And, of course, best of luck!

    • Ah! Good article, thanks! So when expanding the sample, more CEOs and other people in positions of power went to name-brand schools than Bruni gives credit to. I suppose that’s a sin of omission right there, but what I got out of the radio stories was the assertion that there’s a myth(ology) that top tier schools more or less come with a guarantee, while only the poor or less intelligent kids go to anything BUT a top tier school. The interviews were basically saying (to me, at least) that no, it’s not true, which I believe wholeheartedly.

      Naturally, what my daughter wants to do is not going to be offered by the Ivy League. We won’t be looking at any schools that do not offer a well regarded program for what she wants to accomplish. That instantly wipes out (maybe most, if not all) Ivy League. Among well regarded schools that offer what she wants? I think we’d be stupid to not consider the top tier schools in that arena, but we’d be doubly stupid if we ONLY considered top tier schools (and then, top tier according to what, exactly). I think a lot of people choose colleges like we make our MMO characters: focus on the important stats (schools), but don’t ignore the “dump stats” (schools).

      I have the hindsight to realize that my personal experience with college and the aftermath is a percent due to the school, but also a percent due to my inability/unwillingness to do the schmoozing (“networking”) that IS so important these days. I’m hoping that I can instill that in my daughter, because I know it wrecked my chances of “doing science”, and I don’t want her to deep-six her prospects because she was too shy to speak up or to engage those who can help her.

      The good news is that, unlike my parents, my daughter has a father who’s not clueless about the path she wants to take. I know people, or at least know people who know people, who we can engage (pump) for information on the temperature of the waters when it comes time. I certainly wouldn’t do it FOR her, but hopefully I can grease the wheels for her by putting her in touch with some folks.

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