Riding my bicycle across campus, I saw a former colleague coming out of the student union. Recalling that one of his two daughters had just started her freshmen year in college, I stopped and asked how she was doing. He said, “I just received a photo from her. It was a selfie with two other women from her dorm floor, and the caption read, ‘I have friends.’ As a parent, that’s all you care about.”

His daughter had picked the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire over other schools because it had a good marching band, and now I was learning that her dad’s primary concern was whether she was making friends. After spending so much time around kids and parents who care only about high ACT scores and college rankings, it was wonderful to encounter people who have different priorities. Actually this was the second story in a week that reaffirmed my overall confidence in the current batch of young people. Another friend’s daughter had just started at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.  Like UW-Eau Claire, Wartburg is a very good school, but not one that resides at the top of most college rankings.  It has, however, an outstanding Division III cross country team, and this particular young woman loves to run. I don’t understand her passion for running long distances, but I admire that she considered that passion when she chose a college.

I am currently reading a book about college admissions titled The Years that Matter Most. Author Paul Tough points out that there was a time when the most academically talented students, for a variety of reasons, spread themselves around at a thousand or more different colleges, and all reputable schools had their share of valedictorians and students with high SAT or ACT scores.  This is no longer the case. Today most high achieving high school seniors (at least those who are getting advice from parents and/or counselors) attend only a handful of selective institutions. The lip service, according to Touch, still says, “Choose the school that makes you happy, where you’re going to find your true identity and become your authentic self. You’ll get a good education wherever you go.” When it comes to actually finalizing their decision, however, students live by the axiom,“Get your scores as high as you can, and do exactly what all the other high-scoring student are doing. Go to the most selective school that will admit you, period.” 

I don’t think that students who choose a college based on marching bands or the cross country teams are necessarily more independent or more self-aware than other young adults, but they do see college as more than just a stepping stone. Good for them.