Why We're All To Blame for Skyrocketing College Costs

March 17th 2015

Matthew Segal

Frank Bruni is a best-selling author and op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania is available today. Frank spoke with ATTN: about his new book, the college admissions frenzy, and the "country clubification" of elite universities. 

Frank Bruni

ATTN: Simply put, why do we put so much stock in college admissions? 

FB: Well, we’re competition addicts. That’s sort of central to our country’s identity, and the college admissions process is a moment of widespread, intense competition. We’re eager to gain membership to exclusive clubs—this seems almost embedded in the DNA of many people—and that’s what acceptance to a highly selective school is: the acquisition of such membership. And today, the process has grown more heated and frenzied and rife with anxiety because of rising application numbers, the test prep and college coaching industries, status consciousness and an economic pessimism that has many kids and parents feeling that they must find and seize any leg up. An elite school is considered a leg up.

ATTN: Have college marketing efforts become more aggressive in recent years? Or have we always had an obsession over where we attend school?

FB: College marketing is another factor in the more intense frenzy today. Colleges churn out glossy literature and emails and come-ons like never before. They want more applicants in part so they can turn more down and have lower acceptance rates, which look good on paper and boost schools’ desirability. It’s a vicious cycle. And my point is that it’s making too many kids feel awful and feel as if their future is in doubt. Which is of course ridiculous, because—forgive me for cribbing my own book’s title—where you go is not who you’ll be. I put plenty of evidence of that in the book.

ATTN: How do colleges (and in particular elite colleges) market themselves so successfully when your data shows that what specific school you attend is not ultimately a great indicator of success?

FB: Because kids and parents—college consumers—are playing the odds, and all other things being equal, it can indeed be a boost and an advantage to attend an elite college. It can more instantly give you a network, for example. But we have to keep the size of that boost in perspective, acknowledging that things even out over time and that there are many, many different paths to happiness. We have to recognize that elite colleges have success with their marketing in part because there’s a public narrative that’s selective and warped. You will hear over and over again how all the current Supreme Court justices traveled through the Ivy League, and how the last four presidents did. You will not hear that no more than a third of the Senate went to highly selective schools; that Barack Obama started not at Columbia but at Occidental; that the two Bushes were legacy cases at Yale (going there was a matter of bloodline, not a pivotal springboard to greatness); that Richard Nixon went to Whittier College and Ronald Reagan to Eureka College; and that the University of Delaware is the alma mater of both Joe Biden and Chris Christie.

ATTN: Do you think colleges (and in particular elite colleges) will ever stop their "country clubification?"

FB: I really don’t know. It does feel to me that, as they say, something’s got to give. And those schools only countryclubify to the extent that we buy into it and let them. We need to change the conversation to a much saner and more productive one: How are you going to use college? What are you going to do to take maximum advantage of a college’s splendor—and so very many colleges are splendid—and to till that fertile landscape for all that it’s worth? One of the problems with putting so much energy into the effort to penetrate the inner sanctum of an elite college is that it steals energy from these more productive and consequential matters. You show me someone who used college well, and I’ll show you a fulfilled, successful human being.

ATTN: In one excerpt of your book, you mention "the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit." Why? Can you detail where the most corruption exists within the college admissions process?

FB: What I mean is that so many people exist in special categories—star athlete, for example, or legacy case—that not everyone’s applying on an even playing field. Many applicants have had the blessings of the best tutors, the best SAT prep courses, the best admissions consultants. A school may be showing special consideration to someone who has flagged an interest in anthropology because that department is hurting for majors. Etcetera. It’s not exactly a clean, neat meritocracy.

ATTN: How much should we blame colleges themselves for their skyrocketing costs?

FB: Plenty. But we should blame ourselves too. We’re buying into their spending. When they take a big chunk of their money to build an enormous rec center with great dining options and then pass some of that cost onto future students, and those students then choose that school because of its great rec enter and dining options, well, we’re all doing the destructive tango together.

ATTN: Where can people buy your book?  

FB: Well, I hope that most bookstores are stocking it! And I believe they are. There are several links and purchase options on its website, If you go there, you can choose among Amazon, B & N, Indiebound, etc. I hope that “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” gives comfort to kids in college, to kids bound for college and to their parents, and I think it’s also worth consideration by people in higher education, who can and should take a look at the way this whole system is malfunctioning right now.