Paul Heinz

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Saying No to College Competition

Confucius may have said it first, but I remember the following quote best from The Brady Bunch Movie in which Mike Brady tells his children, “And as a wise man once said, 'wherever you go....there you are.'” (see 0:33)

Parents of high schoolers may have a hard time embracing this little tidbit when it comes to preparing their kids for college, when so many forces tell us that where you attend college is the most important decision you and your child well ever make.  It's hard not to get stuck in idea of achieving at all costs.  Case in point: while volunteering last week at Feed My Starving Children, I sat next to two women of high school sophomores and heard them discuss their kids’ impending college searches, and phrases like “ACT practice test,” “hire a tutor” and “a good college resume-builder” peppered their conversation.  I got the feeling that while packing food for the starving was all well and good, adding an entry for next year’s college applications was even better. 

They’re not alone.  The race to college is a national phenomenon that for many begins in the toddler years and lets up only with an acceptance letter from Harvard. 

Last March, Brigid Schulte of The Washington Post authored an excellent article about “the parenting arms race.”  In it, she highlights the story of Wilma Bowers, whose daughter was sneered at by fellow classmates after applying to James Madison University – a fine school by all accounts, but in the community of McLean, Virginia, anything short of Ivy League or Stanford is considered “settling.” (if you have time, read the comments section of this article as well – enlightening stuff).

This idea isn’t confined to hyper-competitive parents and their children.  A very down-to-earth friend of mine told me her son waffled a bit about attending a university in Colorado because part of him felt like he hadn’t pushed himself to get into a more highly-ranked school, and one of my own daughters has made similar comments.

But it’s important to consider the wisdom of Confucius and Mike Brady.  After all, you take yourself with you wherever you go, and if you’re a person who’s going to succeed (however that’s defined), you will succeed regardless of the school you attend.  Sure, going to college is important for many people, but where you go to school?  Not so much, even if you do happen to consider earnings the best measure of success.  According to a study by Stacy Dale, it’s the level of school a student is accepted to, and not where the student ends up going, that best determines future financial success.  And today’s CEOs of major U.S. corporations come from a more diverse group of schools than in the past, when graduation from an Ivy League school was more of a prerequisite.

A recent phrase that's been used recently is "authentic success," but it's really just common sense: do something you love, treat others as you want to treated, and give back.  This is nothing new.  

When my kids were two years old, I wrote the song "Head Start."

You go and visit your neighbors with kids
And brag about what yours just did
And hope her milestones measure up
Life's one big competition

Even then, I could sense that it would be very easy to fall in the hyper-competitive trap.  Fifteen years later, I hope I've dodged that bullet more often than not.

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