Frogs in the Wrong Ponds, Tiger Mothers and the ‘Best’ College

Study suggests that many -- especially those with Asian backgrounds -- may not realize that best fit may not be most prestigious institution. Can counselors challenge preconceptions?

July 31, 2017
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Are students better off at the most prestigious college to which they can be admitted? Or might many of them be better off at a college -- less prestigious, perhaps -- where they may be an academic star?

For decades, sociologists have pointed to a 1966 study to answer the question. The study found that academic success in college (regardless of the rank or reputation of the college) was a better way to predict career success than simply the reputation of the college or university attended.

To be sure, many students who did well at top colleges succeeded, benefiting in part from the reputations of their alma maters. But for many other students, the self-confidence and direction gained by attending a college where they thrived seemed to push these students ahead. “The Campus as a Frog Pond,” the study, makes the case for being a big frog in a small pond.

It would be easy to assume the study -- from The American Journal of Sociology -- is dated. It focuses on male students, and those students were overwhelmingly white in an era when opportunity was denied to others. (Notably, the “better off in a small pond” argument is made frequently by critics of affirmative action with regard to minority students, most prominently by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but the 1966 paper and a new one focus on white and Asian students.)

Kaidu Wu, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Michigan, says that much subsequent research has backed the 1966 findings, even if many prospective students and parents focus only on rankings and prestige, not fit.

She set out compare how different groups of people relate to the big frog in small pond/small frog in big pond choice when it comes to college admissions. With two Michigan colleagues -- Stephen M. Garcia and Shirli Kopelman -- she has published the results as “Frogs, Ponds and Culture” in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Her research found enduring interest in being in the large pond (in terms of prestige) -- especially but not exclusively among those with Asian backgrounds.

In one of the studies for the project, the research team surveyed white and Asian-American undergraduates on the big pond/small pond choice (after first surveying and finding that the undergraduates understood the metaphor).

Both groups opted for being a small frog in a big pond, but Asian-Americans were more likely to have this preference -- 75 percent vs. 59 percent.

For a second study, the team looked at adults (older than traditional college age) -- white adults from the United States and adults in China. Here the idea was to look at attitudes once people had left their college years, and the question gave more of a downside to being a small frog in a large pond.

Those surveyed were asked if they would rather attend a “top 10 college” at which their academic performance would be below average, or a “top 100 college” at which their academic performance would be above average.

Here 58 percent of the Chinese sample opted for the big pond option of attending the top 10 college, even with below-average academic performance. But only 29 percent of the white American group made that choice.

In an interview, Wu said that the results point to a need for counselors, parents and others to encourage high school students to think beyond “big pond” colleges.

Plenty of students, of course, will thrive in big ponds, Wu said. She’s an international student who finished her undergraduate degree at Michigan as well as enrolling in graduate school there -- and Michigan is very much a big pond.

But she said that the right place is more about fit than prestige. And she said that the new study points to the need for counselors to drive home this point, especially with Asian-American students and their families.

The discussion over Amy Chua's 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother reflects an attitude among some Asian-American parents that their children should “work as hard as possible” and focus on getting into the best possible college, she said. Wu said she hoped her study would encourage more of a focus on the best college fit.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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