Last week, Frank Bruni published a New York Times column advising college applicants not to worry so much about getting into a top college. He profiled two graduates: Peter Hart and Jenna Leahy. Hart attended public but posh New Trier High School in suburban Chicago. He didn’t have a top academic record, however, and was rejected by the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. Hart enrolled at Indiana University.
Leahy attended quite possibly the most elite prep school in the country, Phillips Exeter Academy. She too had some weaknesses in her application (her SAT math score, evidently) and was turned down by the colleges she most wanted to attend. She wound up at Scripps College.
But they both lived happily ever after anyway. Hart managed to land a consulting job and is now working on his MBA at Harvard. Leahy applied successfully to the Teach for America program and is now one of the directors and founders of a charter school for low-income students in Phoenix.
“Life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them,” Bruni explained. “And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.”
Those are noble thoughts, but there are two problems with Bruni’s cheery conclusion. First, both students attended prestigious high schools with large numbers of wealthy students. The school name, or well-to-do contacts among former classmates, might have proved helpful. That isn’t necessarily the case, but it is a possibility that Bruni should have considered.
Second, there are some employers in this country who seem determined to judge you by your college. It does seem silly in this day and age, especially when you consider how much more weight a person’s work record should receive. But it happens.
For instance, here is a list of high-ranking employees at a leading corporation, and their respective colleges or universities. These are the columnists of The New York Times. The first school listed is the columnist’s undergraduate institution. If a second is listed, it is the one from which the columnist received a graduate or professional degree.
Charles M. Blow – Grambling
David Brooks- University of Chicago
Frank Bruni – UNC at Chapel Hill, Columbia
Roger Cohen – Oxford
Gail Collins – Marquette, University of Massachusetts
Ross Douthat – Harvard
Maureen Dowd – Catholic University (D.C.)
Thomas L. Friedman – Brandeis, Oxford
Nicholas Kristof – Harvard, Oxford
Paul Krugman – Yale, MIT
Joe Nocera – Boston University
In the category of undergraduate institutions, the score is U.S. Private – 8, U.S. Public – 2, Oxford – 1. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 76% of American college students attend public institutions.
But only 18% of NYT columnists received their undergraduate degrees from one. Bruni is one of the two who did, but he also received a graduate degree from Columbia University School of Journalism.
Studies show that private colleges in the U.S. are generally more socially exclusive than public colleges, even those of similar prestige. For its part, Oxford University is a state-supported institution these days, but it has a long history of social exclusion, and still receives criticism on that score.
Seven out of 11 Times columnists have at least one degree from either an Ivy League university, Oxford, or the University of Chicago. Those institutions make up a tiny percentage of U.S. collegians, but the overwhelming majority of NYT columnists. (Though I should note that one of the Oxford degree recipients, Roger Cohen, grew up in England.) Looking at both undergraduate and graduate degrees, we find this interesting score: Oxford – 3, U.S. Public Universities – 3.
Those facts beg a question. Wouldn’t it have been better if Bruni had delivered his lecture on the relative unimportance of attending a particular college to those who do the hiring at The New York Times, rather than to the general public?
For the latter group, this is Bruni’s real message:
Don’t trouble your little heads about getting into one of the colleges attended by nearly all of us brilliant people at The New York Times. I’m sure that you will succeed (snicker) in your own unique way.
 See for instance Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life (Princeton University Press, 2009).