Snobs, Pushy Relatives and Misinformed Teachers

If you didn’t read my college blog post yesterday, I hope you do because it focused on a lot of hot-button issues for parents and teenagers trying to navigate the college process. The post, which was actually an email from the mom of a high school senior, touched upon such issues as:

Brand name snob appeal
Pushy relatives
Mistrust of attending schools far away
Misinformed teachers/counselors/students

It’s no wonder that the post generated lots of comments. And a big THANK YOU to everyone who did post their thoughts, which I thought were all quite helpful.  If you didn’t read the post, here it is:

California Teen Getting Grief for Liking Southern Universities

To sum up, Karen (mom) and Nicole (daughter) conducted their college search in a thoughtful and methodical approach that has sadly generated a lot of flak from relatives, friends, teachers and counselors, who frankly don’t know what they are talking about. The naysayers have been generally aghast that Nicole was looking at universities in the South and Texas and didn’t know why she didn’t aim for marquee names closer to home like UCLA and USC.

My Take On All of This

Here are a few observations that I promised I’d make after Karen shared her predicament:

1. I’m tired — really, really tired — of people assuming that there are only a few schools in this country that are worth going to if you want to:

  • Have a promising career.
  •  Attend graduate school.
  •  Get into medical school or law school.

There is zero evidence that the “dream” schools that everybody has heard of – and some people actually worship –  can work that kind of magic. Frankly, motivated students wherever they attend school can accomplish any of the above goals just by persevering and working hard.

The pressure Nicole has been feeling about attending a University of California campus or USC made me recall a conversation that I had this summer with a friend of mine, who is a chemistry professor at University of California, San Diego, which is one of those highly sought-after schools. My friend mentioned that when his former students ask him for recommendations for their medical school applications, they are deflated by his response. The professor tells the students that he doesn’t know who they are — he teaches in lecture halls and teaching assistants deal with the undergrads — so he can’t write a personalized recommendation. All he can do, he explains, is write a note describing the class content and the grade that the student received.

I don’t think that’s the advantage that people assume comes from attending an intensive research university, where professors are focused on their own studies and not on undergraduates.

A School No One Has Heard Of

Let’s contrast that with what happens at the school where my daughter graduated,  Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, which is one of those schools that no one has heard of and can’t even pronounce. Juniata, where about 40% of the students major in a science,  boasts a stellar track record for getting their grads into medical school, dental schools and other medical programs.  As you can see from this link, Juniata’s success rate is 97%. And 100% of their students get into law school.

According to US News, the nation’s medical schools less than 9% of its applicants and law schools accept less than 35%, which makes Juniata’s stats look even more amazing.

2. People knowledge of “good” schools is severely limited and quite cramped.

During the Christmas vacation, I talked to my son’s best childhood friend about his school — Carleton College — which I originally suggested that he apply to. (Most people were urging Nathan to apply to Ivy League schools and Berkeley, but he was intrigued by liberal arts colleges.)  Carleton is an elite liberal arts college, but no one Nathan has run into in California has ever heard of it. The exception was a guy with a math PhD from UC Berkeley and his reaction was the kind that Nathan had always wanted. It was something like this:  “Wow, you go to Carleton. That’s an awesome school. I’m totally impressed.” The PhD knew about Nathan’s college because there were Carleton grads in his Berkeley grad program.

3. Don’t worry about what others think.

Nicole and Karen are just going to have to ignore the naysayers. Yes, it would be nice if people had heard of the schools on daughter’s list, but does it really matter? No. What’s important is that the mother and daughter have conducted a thoughtful exploration of their college choices, which should ultimately boost Nicole’s chances of attending a school that she loves and that her parents can better afford.

4. A Californian Attending School in Texas

I’m going to close by sharing the observation of another mother (Linda) who weighed in yesterday, whose daughter is currently a freshman at Texas Christian University, which is one of Nicole’s picks. Rather than just speculating what it would be like for a Californian to attend school in Texas, this mom shares her daughter’s experience:

My daughter chose a private school in Texas and it is the perfect fit. California is the #2 state for admits in all those Texas schools that Karen listed so there are plenty of kids from the coast. Both coasts in fact. She has had more opportunities already as a freshman than she would’ve ever had at USC or a UC, due to size of the freshman class if nothing else. She accepted the Honors College invitation and lives in the Honors dorm. She has a hands-on internship in her major as a freshman! She will graduate with a stellar resume full of academics AND experience — which is essential in this economy.

Additionally, the smaller size of and southern hospitality felt at Texas schools creates a cohesive community full of school spirit that the highly selective California schools couldn’t possibly have due to their diversity and size — if that is important to Karen’s daughter. Yes, USC, UCLA and Berkeley have school spirit, but it is a slice of the student population, not a comprehensive body like it was at those schools when we all attended them. Yes, my daughter is a USC legacy too and already has been approached to transfer but she has no desire. Funny how many California kids we met in Texas had parents who went to USC. For us, attending college at TCU is a match made in heaven.



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  1. I am a little late to the game, but part of the reason that an institution like Juniata has such stellar rates is because they use advisors to discourage students who can’t cut it to NOT apply.

    It would be erroneous to use the kind of causal thinking that Juniata adequately prepares students for professions in the health, medicine, and law. As a professional in higher education, I would be deeply suspicious of such a program.

    I have also seen other schools that advise their students to apply to every law/medical school that they can that are safety schools. These may not actually provide the quality medical or legal education that is necessary to meet important core competencies in either profession.

    The better evidence is not so much the placement statistics, but the commitment of the University to provide intense preparation in each of these areas including career counseling, academic preparation, test preparation, etc.

    Living in Pennsylvania, I constantly hear from people who know Juniata graduates that they are elitist and somewhat “snobby.” It is a continuous perception of Juniata graduates and that they are also out of touch with the world, because they come from upper to middle class, white families.

    I deeply dislike generalizing, but the perception has been a pervasive one, and one that I experienced myself recently. Perhaps Juniata should consider the ways in which they contribute to their students personal development more fully.

  2. Really, I thought Carleton College was a safety school. It has like a 40% acceptance rate which is not that selective.

  3. The poster writes: “…Texas schools creates a cohesive community full of school spirit that the highly selective California schools couldn’t possibly have due to their diversity and size-”

    This was an interesting post, with excellent points, but I wonder at this quote above? What is the reference to the “diversity” in California schools that makes school spirit less “cohesive” than at TCU? I wonder what kind of diversity makes the CA schools less attractive.

  4. My son chose to go to Thew University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. No one in Minnesota can figure out why he would go there. (great music program, highly ranked school, tough to get in, excellent merit money.) And to think that Minnesota has brutal winters.

  5. I want to share my daughters experience about leaving California and attending a well know University in Dayton, Ohio. A year and a half ago my daughter graduated in the top 5%, from a prestigious high school in a small town in California. She was able to get into every school in California that she applied too! She chose to attend the University of Dayton, Ohio. She picked this school because she wanted to go to a well attended University, not in CA.
    She didn’t know a soul in Ohio! She was placed in a quad room( 4 people) in Freshmen dorms. She had done all she could to prepare her self for her new roomates. They talked on the phone, corresponded through Facebook, etc. nothing could have prepared her for the experience that was to follow. The first week, they had boys staying the night, partying all night long, blaring the tv and music, and the final straw was a boy urinating on my daughters bed! Of which the roomates stated wasn’t their problem! We were able to get an emergency move after much threatening and many, many phone calls. A complete stranger that was an employee at the school finally took pity on my daughter and her inability to get help from the staff and she was able to facilate a move. Emails phone calls to faculty and even the University president were never answered or returned!! This is a school that the president addressed us parents and incoming Freshmen that they would be “home away from home” they would be there for our children! My daughter ended up going through 3 different sets of roomates in her Freshmen year. It was so terrible that she begged to not go back, to her dream university! She gave up her scholarship and is now attending our local junior college and preparing to transfer next year, to a California school.
    I share her story only to show there is another side to leaving California schools. I realize that my daughters experience was exceptionally bad and only heightened by the lack of communication, compassion, and help provided to us by the University of Dayton. It pains you greatly to hear your child cry everyday for over 9 months. To know that no one is able to help her! I can’t begin to describe the torture it was for our whole family.
    When my daughter finally returned home to Ca. She was humiliated because she had a 4.5 Gpa leaving high school and now her only option was to attend a Junior college to get enough units to transfer.
    I told my daughter, she should not feel bad for having followed her dream. At least she tried it!

  6. Another great post – Long Island high schoolers tend to consider the same 25 colleges at the expense of the Colleges That Change Lives and other similar options – thanks for championing this non-brand schools once again!

  7. We are experiencing the same frustrating thing now. My D has choosen to attend U of Alabama. We are from the Midwest and every time D mentions that she is attending school at UA please look at her very surprised and ask why? Then come the cracks about how she has too many teeth to attend school in Alabama, along w/ every other Southern stereotype. Very frustrating to have to justify your college choice.. But when I tell them that she will graduate debt free and is in an Honors College that will ensure that she has freshman research opportunities and class sizes of 15, I walk away feeling much better. She has top level stats and everyone expected her too to go to Northwestern or U of Chicago, etc.

    Southern hospitality is amazing once you experience it!

    1. Just discovered this blog and wish I had a year ago! Oh we’ll. We too are in the Midwest and have a son who will going to U Al in the fall. What has your daughters experience been like? We r a little nervous because it is so far and such a big school. He was accepted to the Honors College and debating whether the honors dorm would be too isolated.

      1. Our son is considering the University of Alabama, and if the two of you could tell me more about the experiences your children had/are having there, I’d be very grateful. He, too, would be in the Honors program. While we are trying hard not to get caught up in the college “name game,” we do want him to attend an institution that provides both a rigorous education and a degree that is respected in the job market.

  8. It’s frustrating to hear about many folks around us are still asserting that there are only a few college’s that high-achieving student ought to go to. I had a similar experience with my “gifted student” instructor in grade school this past summer.

    After not seeing me since the 6th grade, my old teacher said “Hi!” after bumping into me at our public library. We chatted a bit, and then she brought how I must be attending a school like Northwestern by now. I then told her the name of the small, locally reputable LAC in the Midwest I was actually attending, and she just responded “hmm…” with falling intonation before saying good-bye and leaving. I got the impression she was disappointed that I didn’t go to a big-name school, but I couldn’t be happier where I am and the whole experience I’m getting.

  9. My daughter chose a small public liberal arts college in Maryland. We live in Nevada. Of course, we have had a variety of reactions when we tell people where she is attending school. We took her to school this past August to start her sophmore year. While having lunch in the dining room (without my daughter) I struck up a conversation with a woman who I thought was another mother. I told how much my daughter enjoyed the school especially her required freshman seminar the year before “Dreams and Dreaming” and because of that class she decided to double major psychology with bio/chemistry. The woman looked at me with a surprised expression and told me she taught that class and asked my daughter’s name. When I told her she got a huge smile on her face and she leaned toward me and said “I’m not suppose to say this, but she was my favorite student.” She then proceeded to tell me about possible research opportunities at the school or the NIH for the following summer. She even went out of her way to help my daughter get the psychology teacher she wanted that fall semester. This type of personalized education just doesn’t happen at a larger institution where my daughter would have been in a class of 300 instead of 15. Also, there are no TAs and all her professors have their Phds. My advice to parents is to not get caught up in the name game. There are really wonderful schools out there if you open your mind to them.

    1. I have an idea which college you are talking about. It is on our list to visit with our HS junior child. Thank you for sharing this incident.

  10. It’s hard to believe that people haven’t heard of Carleton, an outstanding liberal arts school that is exceptionally strong in math and the sciences. I visited last summer and was very impressed not only with the academics and articulate students I met, but also with the fun extracurricular activities they had.

    As for never having heard of a school, I have a funny story. While chaperoning a trip that involved students from several states, I overheard the following conversation between a student from Arizona and one from Utah:

    “Where are you going to college?”

    “I’m going to go to Dartmouth.”

    “Dartmouth? I never heard of it. I’m going to Dixie College!” (said proudly)

    I guess it’s all relative … or regional. (By the way, Dixie State College is in St. George, Utah)

  11. Proud graduate of Juniata College! Still trying to tell people how to pronounce it.
    Great post. It’s so important to keep perspective. Students will get out of college what they put into it. The opportunity to really shine in a smaller, less well known school, can provide the experience that will pay off in the end. Thanks for sharing this advice.