The Bumper Sticker Conundrum

It’s the time of year when business begins to pick up a little bit for me.  The holiday season has waned and winter has worn down those of us in northern regions who are tired of debating the correct blanket weight for our horse’s temperature control needs (Confession #1: I usually stick to medium weight unless it’s subzero) and the parents of juniors (and some sophomores) begin to realize that college for their children is no longer something that’s on the far horizon, but is in fact looming more quickly than they would like it to.  Thus, I begin to get inquiries from those parents who wish for me to help their students locate not only the right college riding program to fit their needs and goals, but more importantly to find the right college fit as well.

(Confession #2: I start with the academic part and work backwards to the riding.  Sorry to disappoint you, students.)

In the initial meetings with most families, we spend time talking about the student’s history both in the saddle and in the classroom, as well as discussing the parents’ educational background(s), the conversations that the family and possibly also the school counselor have already had about college, and any other information that I need to know as we begin to work together to build a student’s school list.  And at some point during these first conversations, more often than not, we also have to discuss the “prominence” of particular colleges and how a family feels about them. I call this “The Bumper Sticker Conundrum.”

"The Bumper Sticker Conundrum" - it's a real thing.
“The Bumper Sticker Conundrum” – it’s a real thing.

Why was “prominence” in quotes in that last paragraph and what the heck do bumper stickers have to do with anything?  Allow me to explain:

You know how you often find yourself sitting in traffic or cruising down the highway only to find yourself behind (or passed by) a vehicle sporting a sticker that touts a prominent college or university? Or you can’t help but catch sight of a vanity plate that indicates the car’s owner graduated from a particular school?  Do you often wish that you could put a fancy sticker on your back window or come up with an ingenious vanity plate slogan of your own? Do you want everyone in the world to be jealous of the name of the school on your sticker or plate?

That – in a nutshell – is the bumper sticker conundrum.  It’s the idea of seeking a “brand name” college or university so that when others (friends, family, and strangers) see the sticker on your window, they’re instantly impressed at your credentials.  Harvard, Princeton, Yale – all of the Ivy League schools fall into this category of prominence, as do big flagship universities with prominent and enthusiastic athletic programs – schools such as Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Texas Austin.  Even some of the smaller but more highly ranked (and therefore perceived to be prestigious) schools fulfill this category – Sewanee, Vanderbilt, Amherst, and William and Mary.

(Confession time for you – I bet you’ve heard of most, if not all, of the schools I just listed.)

Pride in your school is one thing, but is your priority your own education - or what other people will THINK of your education?
Pride in your school is one thing, but is your priority your own education – or what other people will THINK of your education?

The challenge I face as an educational consultant comes when families and students wish to limit their college search only to schools that fit that description – that is, schools that have instantly recognizable names so that the parents can proudly display the school’s sticker on their car and the student can wear a sweatshirt bearing the school’s name to school and brag to his or her friends about how “good” the school is.

There are those quotation marks again – what do I mean by “good?”  Aren’t those schools prominent because they’re such good schools?

The short answer is that yes, those schools whose names fall so easily from our tongues are very good schools and many of them are among the oldest in our nation, making them a part of our cultural history and lexicon.  And yes, their admission rates are typically very low, which lends another layer of prestige to their appeal – only the best and brightest need apply because only the best of the best will be admitted, right?  Anyone would be proud to display the sticker of such a school on their vehicle. But what of the other hundreds of schools out there that might be just as good but not have the same amount of good PR?  What of the schools that are right for the student?

Getting into Yale is an admirable goal and any student who receives a letter of acceptance should be very proud of him or herself – but just because Yale has admitted the student doesn’t mean that the student will be happy there.  It doesn’t mean that the programs and faculty and student body will mesh well with the applicant’s background and goals and personality.  The acceptance letter merely indicates that the applicant has presented the right credentials to be offered a place in the fall if he or she chooses to attend. Look at it this way, students – it’s just as easy to be miserable at Yale as it is to be miserable at your local community college if it isn’t the right place for you.  The bumper sticker just isn’t as fancy.

So as you set out on your college search, parents and students, be sure that you do so with an eye on the educational component, the riding component (it’s important, after all!), and the idea of making a great match for your student.  Every college bookstore sells a fancy bumper sticker for the family car – and if you find the right college fit, you’ll be proud to display it and not care what anyone else thinks.

(Need help starting the list? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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2 thoughts on “The Bumper Sticker Conundrum

  1. I cannot express how much I agree with this! I’m from the east coast and I’m going to a small liberal arts school in california (one of the Claremont schools). Gradually people are starting to hear of it on this coast, but I can tell whenever I mention the name of my school to people they don’t always know what I’m talking about. It infuriates me when people only consider name brand schools. Honestly, it’s about what you do with your education, not the name of the school it came from….

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