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  • Adrienne Leinwand Maslin

Don't Let Your Town Get You Down!


Just like the fictional Lake Wobegon, I live in a town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The college decals that go rolling by, stuck to the rear windows of BMWs, Infinitis, and Cadillacs, are the parental equivalent of a teen’s Facebook account. It’s how we judge our status. Just like a teenager who thinks everyone else’s lives are magical while her own life is the pits, those decals can make adults miserable. As we drive through our town, the names of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country flash before our eyes. Oh, that family has a child at MIT! And look there! A child at Dartmouth! And that family pays tuition at both Duke and Colgate! How do they manage that?


Oh, poor things. Their child attends the local state university. And that one, a community college. How sad. (Actually, a community college decal is a rare sighting!)


My neighbor’s grandson worked at a local pizza restaurant during his last two years of high school. Around May of each year, the owner, always with good intentions, would ask his high school aged staff about their college plans. Those who said they would be attending one of the local state universities would get a “very nice!” Those who were attending Columbia? Stanford? Penn? They would get the equivalent of an “attaboy/attagirl,” combined with a marching band and an Air Force fly over. Uplifting for those young people heading to Ivies or elite colleges. A little insulting to the others.



Mommy, do you know that Miss Edna went to a large state university? And look how smart she is! She’s a teacher! Well, you know that. And her husband, Amir, attended community college for three years before transferring to a small, private college. Amir had just arrived in this country from Iran and had to work to help support his family. So, he lived at home and went to the local community college part-time until he earned his associate’s degree. Then he got a full tuition scholarship to go to a very selective college. It was right in his home town so he was still able to save money by living at home. Two years later he had his bachelor’s degree! He majored in physics and now he’s an engineer!


I used to be surprised when I learned that people who are highly accomplished in their professions and who bring in six-figure salaries, or higher, attended local or less well-known colleges and universities. (Or, possibly, attended no college at all! But, that's for a different essay.) No longer. Roxanne’s example above proves the point. And there are many people, similar to Roxanne’s teacher, Miss Edna, and her husband, Amir, who had the grades that would have given them entree to the most elite colleges but for personal reasons, made another kind of choice. Most states in this country have many wonderful community colleges, and state colleges and universities to choose from, and they should never be overlooked as positive choices for higher education.


Mom, you should see this list of famous people who went to community colleges!


Yeah? Like who?


Tom Hanks, Queen Latifah, Steve Jobs, Eileen Collins, Elizabeth Warren, and George Lucas!


And, may the force be with them!


Oh, Mom!


So, am I anti-Ivy? Absolutely not! As I have also expressed in these columns, the Ivies and other highly selective colleges are wonderful—for many students. They have prestigious, talented faculty; robust course offerings; huge endowments; and influential alumni with large networks. In greater proportions than at most colleges. What I am against is the way we let prestige go to our heads to the extent that we view other choices—excellent but lesser-known colleges—as less than. And, therefore, make a young person feel less than. Just at the point in their lives when they should be feeling jubilant.


As I’ve said several times in this blog, it is important for a person to attend the college that is right for them. What matters is attending a college where one can achieve academic success, have an enriching social experience, and learn how to make intelligent and ethical choices. Where a student can develop into a person who can take their place in society by obtaining a job, by contributing their time, talent, and, yes, money if needed, to others, and by leading a life that is fulfilling to them. So, if you live in one of those towns where “all the children are above average” and those rear window college decals fill your nightmares, do what’s right for you and your family. Don’t let your town get you down!


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