Why Frank Bruni Is Dead Wrong

BruniThere’s a new book out on the value of education and it advances a rather provocative idea: Stop obsessing about Harvard, Stanford or any other elite school. It really doesn’t matter all that much which school grants you a degree. What does matter is your fit with the school you ultimately attend and the skills and perspectives you learn from your experience.

Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has been getting a lot of publicity for his point of view in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. His perspective is a comforting thought to anxiety-filled applicants who yearn to get into elite colleges, whether as undergraduates or prospective MBA students.

This is, after all, high anxiety time when schools notify applicants of admit-deny-waitlist admission decisions. Today, for example, Wharton sent out admit letters to MBA applicants and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business is calling admits up on the phone. Tomorrow, on March 25th, Harvard Business School will send out notices.

All of these schools are well aware of the apprehension they cause. “While we love to give happy news, we don’t want to create an anxiety zone where you are watching your phone constantly,” wrote Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid for Harvard Business School in a blog post today. We know you’ve been out-of-control throughout much of this process – we can give you the control of where you are and with whom when decisions go out.”


So Bruni is writing into the disquiet fear that consumes many applicants. In his book, he smartly trots out several stories of one-time obsessed applicants to elite schools who initially fell into a funk when rejected from prestige schools, only to find themselves at other universities that would accept them. He points out that only 30 of the 100 American-born chief executives of the Fortune 100 companies boasts a degree from either an Ivy League school or an equally selective college or university.

If you have recently gotten a ding letter from an elite school, you’ll find Bruni’s basic argument somewhat soothing. “People bloom at various stages of life, and different individuals flourish in different climates,” he writes. “For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.”

It’s also true, as Bruni points out, that elite admissions is a bit of a crap shoot, too flawed to be given so much credit. At most of the elite business schools, 80% of the MBA applicant pools are fully qualified to attend a school and do well, yet only 8% to 20% get in. Adds Bruni: “The nature of a student’s college experience — the work that he or she puts into it, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it.”

Yet, Bruni is very possibly one of the worst persons to make this argument. As a columnist for The New York Times, he sits on an elite perch and he got there partly as a result of the educational credentials on his resume. He graduated from one of the country’s most prestigious public universities—The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—and then topped his bachelor’s degree off by earning a graduate degree from Ivy League Columbia University in New York. Sure, he passed on Yale to get his undergraduate degree from UNC.


How legit is this advice? Not very. Sure, prospective students needlessly obsess far too much about getting into elite schools. Most of them would succeed in life regardless of where they end up. After all, most already have the right stuff to be successful. The fact that an admissions official at an elite school has admitted them could make little difference to that outcome. That’s especially true at the graduate level where candidates have already racked up three to five years of work experience.

Author Frank Bruni

Author Frank Bruni

And yet, brand clearly matters—less because of a school’s reputation and more because brand is directly related to the overall quality of the faculty, the students, and the alumni. The elite schools simply have more resources to pay for the world’s most brilliant professors, to enlist the best and brightest students by dangling aggressive scholarship grants at them, and to devote substantially more time and effort to insure that their alumni networks have enduring value.

All this is especially true when it comes to the MBA degree. The world’s most admired and respected corporations generally recruit only at the best schools. If you want to land a position with upward mobility at many of these companies, it’s virtually a necessity to have a degree from a highly ranked business school. McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan/Chase, Morgan Stanley, Google and Apple are just about impenetrable without a degree from a highly selective university. Some of the most lucrative MBA jobs in private equity and hedge funds are unavailable to those who graduate from business schools outside the top ten.

What does a prominent MBA admissions consultant think of Bruni’s argument? “It’s total bullshit, A to Z” deadpans Sandy Kreisberg, founder of HBSGuru.com. “Not only do brands matter. It’s the only thing that matters. What you learn is a commodity. The access to stuff you have as a student at Harvard is just phenomenal, from the student clubs and organizations to the alumni network. I went to NYU, Harvard and Boston University. All the good things came out of my Harvard experience. All my good friends are from Harvard. They were important to me in getting jobs when my career went south.”

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