Opinion: Where you go to college is not who you are — or will be

Professor urges students to ignore marketing ploys and decide whether campus is right fit

In a guest column, Todd L. Pittinsky, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, cautions high school seniors weighing college choices this month not to get caught up in believing where they go to school sets their life course.

Yes, going to college is important, he says, but where students go plays less of a role than what they study and how hard. Pittinsky’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust,” with Barbara Kellerman. Prior to joining Stony Brook, Pittinsky was an associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he served as Research Director of the Center for Public Leadership.

By Todd L. Pittinsky

In the coming month, culminating on the May 1 National College Decision Day, college-bound high school students across Atlanta will have to finalize their decision where to go.

A lot of college touring, a lot of online research, and a lot of family discussion and financial tightrope-walking will have gone down — much of it to answer the wrong question. The primary question these graduates should be asking — along with their parents and guidance counselors — is not “Where should I go?” but “Who do I want to become?”

Few if any colleges are as unique as their marketing would like you to believe. Few will be as decisive to a young person’s future as they would like you to believe — and as too many students and their parents do believe. This illusion is particularly strong for first-generation college applicants and their parents who themselves never had the chance to go to college.

Parents are encouraged to identify themselves, as well as their kids, with a particular college. You’ve probably seen the bumpers stickers that say things like “Michigan Mom” or “Drexel Dad.” According to one marketing company, “It only makes sense to help your online marketing strategies ‘stick’ by winning over the gatekeepers and not just the potential customers.”

During the pandemic, when colleges couldn’t hand out branded gifts to prospective students and families physically visiting in person, they even created “digital swag” for students and parents to litter their social media, announcing they had decided “who they were.”

But where you go is not who you are — or will be.

College reveal parties, live streamed on social media, are increasingly “a thing.” These are not merely one of posts about a student’s decision but rather crafted videos with props and elaborate narrative arcs, such as a student eliminating college options one by one. Think college-colored cake pops, college-colored balloons, and wardrobe changes in and out of college sweatshirts into the final outfit.

The individual and college handwringing (and euphoria) about where to go to college isn’t entirely crazy. Going to college is indeed one of the most effective things people can do to improve their life outcomes.

But it matters more profoundly what your major is. It matters profoundly how hard you work. And it matters profoundly how much debt you take on at the outset of your career. Colleges and universities (private and public) could do a lot of good — at a fraction of their current marketing budgets — by offering simple questionnaires to determine “Are we the right campus for you?”

Questions might include specific career aspirations, preferred learning styles, debt-load preferences. And universities could provide much more candid facts about employment statistics for their schools —specifically statistics reported out by major. We need more transparency and more accountability. We need less identity and place-based marketing.

As the Brookings Institution has called for, colleges and universities should report out separately their spending on advertising, recruitment and marketing per-student to stop misleading prospective students and families with figures they too trustingly assume is spending-per-student on instruction.

They don’t do this because they want to encourage the idea — and the fear — that it’s all about them choosing you (should you ever be so lucky) rather than you choosing them. And so, they feed the mistaken notion that once you are in, and clock four or five years to earn your degree there, you’ll somehow have “arrived.”

Instead of today’s legion of anxious, fearful, overwrought applicants, worrying “who they are” college identity wise, imagine a generation of college freshmen in touch with identifiable goals, ambitious to tackle specific programs and to master specific skills. Maybe they will change their minds later on, but tacking is far different than just drifting. Being on the right ship will never be as important as heading for the right port.