[Letters] Education muddied by ‘prestige’

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[Letters] Education muddied by ‘prestige’

Typical Korean parents display an incredible concern for the well-being of their children. They work extra hours to pay for hagwon (private education institutions), micromanage their children’s schedules and emigrate for their children’s education. While those well-intentioned efforts play a major role in shaping their children, parents are woefully unsuited to decide their children’s prospective colleges.

The mantra “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Yonsei, KAIST and Seoul National University” has been drilled into our social consciousness as the epitome of postsecondary education. The popular belief that acceptance into a prestigious institution automatically leads to success in academia and, in extension, life, is downright erroneous.

Based on data published by a Columbia University researcher, out of 1,400 Korean students registered at 14 top American universities from 1985 to 2007, 44 percent dropped out of their courses. Clearly, our automatic association between prestige and success must be corrected.

In addition, Koreans are generally unaware of the many liberal arts institutions that may provide a comparable - or even superior - education to name-brand colleges.

In a study by Higher Education Data Sharing, the researchers ranked undergraduate colleges by comparing the doctorates awarded between 1995 and 2004 to the graduates of each institution. Out of the study, California Institute of Technology had the highest percentage of graduates attaining doctorates.

Two relatively lesser-known institutions, Harvey Mudd and Swarthmore, placed second and third, respectively. On the other hand, Harvard, the face of the Ivy League, faltered at 18th place, lagging behind small liberal arts colleges like Reed, Carleton and Oberlin. Percentage-wise, only 12.7 percent of Harvard undergraduates earned doctorates, about a third of Caltech’s 36.4 percent.

College, a laboratory of social and cultural experimentation, is an initiation for people transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Accordingly, colleges and universities should never be chosen by our perceived value of brand-names, but by our personal potential for overall growth. Yet the name-brand myth continues to pervade our social psyche, mainly due to the influence of parents. According to a survey released last June by Zinch.com, an online student-college matchmaking service, parents are, by far, the most important influence in the college admissions process.

Parents must understand that if they truly care about their children, then they must let their students choose their institutions based on the children’s personal criteria, ignoring whether it boosts family honor. After all, the four most pivotal years of a student’s life far outweigh bragging rights or a swollen ego. Especially in our current economy, very few of us have $200,000 to spend on brand-name labels. Parents must be mindful never to squander their savings for such an abstract and intangible concept as “prestige,” especially when other smaller institutions could offer a similar or even superior collegiate experience.

Students must also understand that substance far outweighs appearance and that their life belongs to themselves and no other. Instead of merely spending time and tuition in a prestigious institution, it would be wiser to invest the next four years in an environment that favors the expansion of personal insight. The most important thing to realize is the fact that the college experience goes far beyond the academic. It is a testing ground for real life.

When searching for suitable colleges to attend, students should look for religious, social, cultural and academic compatibility. Too many students go to college for credentials and not for education. Life is too short to be concerned about brand-names. To blossom as individuals, we must all be aware of our own desires and our own needs.

Only when we have escaped from the expectations of society can we grow freely - not as a collective - but as individuals.

Kim You-jung,

Kamiak High School, Mukilteo, WA
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