Shameful College Admission Scandal A Reminder Of What Actually Matters Along Life’s Early Journey

Former community college student and U.S. Representative Melissa Bean hands out awards to community college graduates in the One Million Degrees scholarship program.

This college admission scandal makes me furious — not only because of the greed and dishonesty of the offenders, but also because of their sheer ignorance.

It is NOT ESSENTIAL to attend an “elite” university to live an excellent life. In fact, the Gallup-Purdue Index of more than 70,000 graduates — from people out of school for 10 years to 50 years — reports that there is NO PREDICTIVE CORRELATION between the two.

Not long ago, I interviewed Frank Bruni, NYT columnist and the author of “Where You Go Is Not Who’ll You’ll Be.” He broke down the Index results this way:

“People who got deeply involved in organizations when they were in college, people who took on ambitious academic projects, people who developed strong mentor relationships, they’re thriving later on regardless of what kind of school they went to. Because at the end of the day it’s about the experience and the character, not about the whether the name of the institution makes your knees go weak.”

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s just fine for ambitious teenagers and their parents to seek admission to — in a clean and honest fashion — and graduate from “elite” universities. It’s just NOT the only game in town. Far from it.

Melissa Bean is a former member of Congress. She was also my boss once upon a time. Melissa went to Oakton Community College while she was also working. And she became so good at her work that she advanced up the company ladder and eventually went into business for herself. Melissa graduated many years later from a suburban college in Illinois, went on to be elected to the U.S. House, and is now the Midwest Chair of JP Morgan Chase. She also has two fantastic daughters and a terrific family life.

The late James Tyree, a truly great man who died far too young at 53, attended community college as a young man. Jim went on to earn a B.A. and and M.B.A. at Illinois State University. Then he worked his way up to be Chairman of Mesirow Financial — and more importantly, he gave his time and talent to more than 50 civic and charitable organizations in Chicago. He was a tireless humanitarian, a hero in the fight against Juvenile Diabetes, and served for 10 years as Chair of the City Colleges of Chicago.

It is no coincidence that I’ve just referenced two people who’ve lived great lives and both started their post-secondary educational careers in community college. Not only because they built extraordinary lives after their departure, but also because Melissa and Jim were two of the very first people to join the Advisory Board of the One Million Degrees scholarship program. A group of us founded OMD in 2006 to help low-income, hard-working community college students to succeed in school, in work and in life. The program has grown from 25 scholars to more than 800 today.

I’ll save you the time here of reading the rest of our stats. But what my fellow board members, coaches, staff and donors can tell you for sure is that anyone can do anything they want. There are no limits for people who set their mind on a goal, put the pedal to the floor, take advantage of opportunities of support when they arise — and never give up.

We’ve seen our OMD scholars go straight from their Associates Degrees to working in well-paying jobs that they LIKE DOING. We’ve seen scholars transfer to four-year colleges — and even “elite” universities — and excel there as well. Nothing makes us prouder than when a scholar is rewarded for their hard work. And of course, the true measure is their quality of life.

I went to Indiana University. Big Ten school. It was just fine. Pretty campus. Nice journalism school. Yet I don’t feel that the choices I made or the paths that they led me down would have been all that different no matter where I had enrolled. Like most things in life, it’s what you make of it.

I’ll head down the home stretch here with my favorite quote from that Bruni interview:

“When we take off our status conscious hat and we put on our common sense hat, we know that it is the — call it perseverance, call it grit, call it character, call it talent — of the individual that matters much much more than the theater in which that individual inhabits in higher education.”

Perseverance, grit and character. These are all a huge part of what OMD tries to celebrate and support in our scholars. But THEY are the ones doing the real work. Furthermore, these are traits that anyone can develop — regardless of the specific institutions of higher learning that they end up attending.

To the people who perpetrated this fraud and betrayal upon all of those honest and hardworking students out there: You’re not just shameful; you’re stupid. Teach your kids some values — both by talking and by example. It’ll take them a hell of a lot further than any leaf of Ivy.