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Spielberg Effect

Success in Life Without Prestigious Degree

By Jay Mathews

Greg Forbes Siegman was doing fine until the spring of his senior year in 1990. He was near the top of his class at a very competitive public high school in the Chicago suburbs. His list of activities was impressive. It appeared he would go to a great college and do important work.

His dreams were those of many high school academic stars in the college-conscious United States. He would go to one of the Ivy League schools, or maybe Stanford. He would go to law school, or maybe film school. He would argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, or maybe win an Academy Award. The presidency was not impossible.

But then the letters began arriving from the very selective colleges he had applied to. Each was distressingly thin. Each was a rejection. He could not believe it. Had there been a mistake?

The gut-churning truth, when it reached him soon after, was even worse than not knowing.

One of the teachers he had asked to write recommendations told Siegman he had decided, on his own, that no matter how much the teenager believed in his dreams, the teacher thought they were out of whack. The teacher had told the colleges that Siegman was a nice enough young man and worked very hard for his grades, but he did not have the intellectual capacity to flourish at such schools. He was not Ivy League material.

There are many Greg Forbes Siegmans. America is a country built on supersized ambition. The 120-pound water boy thinks he can be quarterback. The book store clerk dreams of writing the great American novel. The high school dropout is certain he will win a Grammy and live in Bel Air. The college admissions process is designed to bring all those hopes in line with reality. Siegman's teacher probably thought he was doing Siegman a favor. If he went to Harvard, the teacher figured, he would only be disappointed and struggle against his limits without any hope of reward.

I think in this year of intense competition for places at a few select colleges, with some students nursing their wounds from being rejected or deferred early decision, and others waiting anxiously for news when the regular decisions are made in March, it is a good time to tell Siegman's full story. On the eve of a new year, it is gratifying to hear how one young man cast off the burdens of the past.

The huge tub of bile that fell on Siegman senior year has had an extraordinary effect on him. But it did not stop him from getting an excellent education and finding a way to make a difference in the lives of many people.

When Siegman was twenty-four, working as a part-time restaurant doorman and just starting as a substitute teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, he decided to start a mentoring program called He invited people of different backgrounds to weekly meals designed to break down stereotypes and other psychological and social barriers.

After 70 weeks of successful brunches, in which young professionals forged deep relationships with young people needing mentors, Siegman set up a foundation. It supervises the program and raises money so young people can get the opportunity he was denied to attend their first-choice colleges.

He called it the 11-10-02 Foundation, celebrating the day that he would turn 30 and his belief that people under 30 were as capable as anyone to do anything. By that date he was resolved to have made a difference in the world, no matter what his high school teacher had thought, no matter how unrealistic his dreams still seemed to many of the people he met.

Naturally, long before the deadline, his optimism and energy had exactly the desired effect. Not only did the weekly brunches change many lives, but the foundation raised more than $250,000 to further the cause. His Scholarship Program gave out tens of thousands of dollars in college grants. In 1999, Siegman was honored by Hasbro as a real-life American hero. In 2000, he became the youngest adult in the country to be honored at the National Jefferson Awards for Public Service. He was named a Man of Distinction by Zeta Beta Tau in 2001. In 2002, he was honored as one of America's Points of Light.

Although he had finished college years before, this year he finally got the degree that was meaningful to him.

As a deeply disappointed high school graduate, he had talked his way into Tulane University in New Orleans and started his community work there. He won election to the student senate and joined a fraternity. But after two years he left Tulane. He was still consumed with the desire to prove he belonged at an Ivy League-type school.

Siegman showed up unannounced on the campus of Northwestern University, a very selective school north of Chicago, and proceeded to talk his way into a place at that school, too. His undergraduate record was spectacular -- thirty-seven A's and a B-plus. One would have thought he would be overjoyed by his success. Instead, he was miserable and refused to attend his graduation at Northwestern, the sort of big name university he had always craved. He realized, to his astonishment, what the reason was. He missed Tulane. He had loved the vibrancy of New Orleans, the student politics, and the many opportunities for community service. It finally occurred to him, after many years of Ivy envy, that the brand-name value of a school had nothing to do with what made it memorable.

So this year when Prairie State College in Chicago Heights invited him to be its graduation speaker, the youngest in its history, he took this to be his second chance to cross a stage at graduation--and one he was not going to pass up. Ivy League degree or not, he had arrived. At the age of 29, he was getting an honorary degree.

At the ceremony, he told his story and received a standing ovation. Paul J. McCarthy, the president of Prairie State, said Siegman's story was "a testament to what one person can accomplish if they are willing to put in the time it takes to reach their goal."

Which is exactly what any disappointed high school senior should keep in mind as he stares glumly at the thin envelope that holds the rejection letter from his first-choice college. It does not matter where you go to school. It matters what you do when you get there, and what you do after you graduate, and what you do with the gift of time, millions of dollars worth of time, that most of us are given.

There is now a term for this phenomenon, invented by Stacy Berg Dale of Mathematica Policy Research and Alan Krueger of Princeton University, who have been working with data on the effects of selective college enrollment on lives.

While looking at their numbers, Dale and Krueger noticed something odd. In many cases, they found that applicants who were rejected by brand-name schools did as well in later life as those who were accepted. The researchers began to wonder whether students' sense of themselves made admissions committees' opinions less important. Under this theory, if you applied to Columbia, Wellesley, and Swarthmore, then you were by definition Columbia, Wellesley, and Swarthmore material, even if those schools spurned you and you had to make do with Cleveland State.

The notion deserved further study, they decided. In the meantime, they gave it a label. It seemed fitting to use the name of a scrawny, bespectacled senior at Saratoga High School near San Jose, Calif., who applied to the famous film school at UCLA but was rejected. He went to Long Beach State (later to become California State University-Long Beach) instead, still thinking about a way to create the career he had in mind. He later tried to transfer from Long Beach State to another famous film school, the University of Southern California, but again he was rejected.

He made five films at Long Beach State, crashed some of the student film screenings at USC, and pushed the studio executives so hard that eventually he got a chance to show what he could do when allowed to make a real feature film.

His name was Steven Spielberg. Dale and Krueger dubbed the phenomenon of rejected college applicants succeeding in spite of their disappointment the "Spielberg effect." Just like Siegman, Spielberg eventually got to star at a graduation ceremony. This year he put on a cap and gown, and, with music from Indiana Jones blaring over loudspeakers at the Cal State Long Beach ceremonies, Spielberg received a bachelor's degree in film and electronic arts, the final requirements completed through independent studies turned in under a pseudonym.

That degree, of course, meant little when compared to Spielberg's body of work. The same goes for Siegman's degree from Prairie State, although Siegman admitted it made him feel good to know that Spielberg, one of his heroes, had followed a similar path. Filmmaking was one of Siegman's many interests. He screened a movie about his community activities on his all-important 30th birthday in 2002.

Spielberg and Siegman are what they have done. Their legacies are the people they have helped and the lessons and images they have brought to life. And it should be obvious by now, to anyone who is paying attention, that their successes had almost nothing to do with where they did, or did not, go to college.

2004 College Advisor of New England