Ahhhh….Middlebury. Hampshire. Bennington. Bowdoin (pronounced bo-dun). Bard. Sarah Lawrence. Don't they sound like a springtime morning in an English cottage? Say the names of these colleges out loud, click your heels three times, and you can see yourself tripping down the yellow brick road into a perfect life.
In my fantasy I see laughing, sophisticated girls in pleated wool skirts clutching hardcover copies of Madame Bovary as they make their way from Ludgate Hall to Winthrop Library.
I wanted that life in the worst way as a teen -- daughter of a working-class widow of extremely limited means, headed for a state university -- but I had no idea how to make it a reality. "Ok, Miss Astor!" barked my mother, whenever I dared to voice such a lofty ambition.
I was sure that all it took to cure a vexing case of class envy was an acceptance letter from any one of these seemingly poetic places. But here I was missing the party, nose pressed against the glass.
When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I took a fateful road trip to visit a long-lost friend at Grinnell College. I made the trek from Southern Wisconsin, across Northern Illinois and into the countryside to the little town of Grinnell, Iowa.
I could have cried when I arrived at the idyllic campus of ivy-covered buildings, leaded-glass windows and stone archways. It all seemed so fancy, rarefied and nurturing compared to my plain old BS degree from Southern Illinois University where there was no ivy in sight.
When I launched my school's college advising program, it was an opportunity to start from scratch, building a unique college-going culture, an oasis within the public high school landscape. I soaked up Dr. Patricia McDonough's (UCLA) excellent research analyzing how kids choose where to apply, and how the influence of their own school's culture, their parents and even the colleges weigh into the equation. I was excited to put into motion my adopted philosophy, "College is not a prize to be won, but a match to be made."
I want my own charges to leave high school feeling at the bottom of their hearts and souls that they've received a fair shake - that they are every bit as loved and nurtured as my Grinnell friend and her peers. In short, I want them to understand they have options outside of the status quo to receive the best-quality education.
Little did I know that the status quo for public high school students in California is a state university or community college!
My first group of 70+ seniors graduating in 2010 hailed from all walks of life. I made it my mission to present them with all kinds of choices: colleges large and small, public and private, urban and rural, very near and ridiculously far from home.
To my delight, they ended up everywhere from Kenyon College in Ohio's Amish country to Tulane, from Emerson College in Boston to University of Redlands. One student applied to (gulp) 28 schools and chose tiny Eckerd College in Florida; the valedictorian matriculated at small-yet-mighty Pomona College in Claremont instead of UC-Berkeley. Another great student thoughtfully chose American Jewish University, only a few miles from home, with a handful of students.
I even had a student who went to Grinnell - on a coveted Posse Scholarship. We were definitely up and running in a race that I believe is in the best interests of my advisees.
As our public charter high school steadily grows, it's become clear that for my low and middle-income students, no matter how much good information is presented, they often choose to apply to a college because of the sound of its name.
Remember my own longing to be one of the girls in the pleated wool skirts? I'm embarrassed to admit it's that simple.
Caitlin Flanagan, former college counselor at the elite private Harvard-Westlake School in LA, now a successful author, wrote in her terrific 2001 article in The Atlantic, "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor": "The very names of schools I had always considered excellent made many students shudder—Kenyon, for example. They would snap briskly to attention if I said "Williams" or "Amherst." So why not Kenyon? …On the other hand, schools that I had never considered particularly dazzling turned out to be white-hot centers of the universe. In vast, high-achieving droves, for example, these kids wanted to go to Duke. Fine, but here's where I couldn't figure them out: they were dying to go to Duke, but (UNC) Chapel Hill left them cold. Why? They couldn't put it into words exactly; it was as inexplicable and irreducible as falling in love."
In his 2002 book Snobbery: The American Version, essayist Joseph Epstein relates college-related pretensions to parents' choices of children's names. "Think of all those…Whitneys and Tylers and Hunters, Saharas and Savannahs and Sierras ….I felt I was in a card game, college-snobbery bridge, in which not suits but schools were bid: Brown, Duke, Princeton, Yale... Clearly, one didn't want to get into this game with a kid at Alabama A&M ("Our daughter is interested in performance studies, and it turns out they've got a really strong department there"), let alone at a junior or community college. To have to make such a confession – concession is more like it – is to cause one's table mates to wonder where you went wrong in raising this once precious but now hopeless child, and, by extension, what, exactly, is wrong with you."
Choosing a college by the sound of its name? Snob appeal? You might as well spin a bottle, or throw a dart at a map. Here are a few fine ones for you to consider: Knox. College of Idaho. Clark. Hiram. Beloit. Illinois College. Occidental. Ripon.
You know, making decisions solely based on feelings, romance and hearsay doesn't cut it. Look deeper, be smarter, seek substance. Together we can separate fact from fantasy, the logical from the whimsical, the absolutely right choice from the obvious one. That Shakespeare guy had it right. A rose by any other name does smell as sweet.