Can we stop talking about who got into which college?

It’s early April and that means plenty of high school seniors around the country who are lucky enough to have multiple college acceptances are deciding which one to choose. The conversation can become obsessive, most prominently when it is about the most elite schools. Here’s something of a rant about the college admissions process, by Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, non-partisan education-news outlet that is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Liz Willen

If you’re spending any time in the company of ambitious high-school seniors or hyper-competitive parents these days, you may be reading Facebook posts with status updates proclaiming acceptances at prestigious colleges:

“Dartmouth! Duke! Vassar! Swag! I’m three for three!”

You may not read about rejections, but you will certainly hear plenty about them, along with much speculation about who got in and who didn’t—as well as some malicious gossip like, “I cannot believe Diana got into Yale and Stephen didn’t. Do you think she knew someone? His SAT scores were so much higher…”

Listen closely, and the list of rejected valedictorians, team captains and accomplished test-takers will go on and on. You may even hear navel-gazing parents and students who received too many thin envelopes ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?”

We go wrong by engaging in this wrong-headed, waste-of-time conversation at all, and by comparing our kids’ test scores and GPAs, their merits and drawbacks. Sure, it’s seductive to be drawn into side-by-side comparisons and speculate about the “secret formula” for getting into top schools like Brown University, where 28,919 applicants vied for acceptances that totaled just 2,649.

In the new comedy Admission, the Princeton admissions officer played by Tina Fey is repeatedly asked to divulge that formula.

“Just be yourself,” Fey falsely answers. The film illustrates how largely unsuccessful such advice is by showing a parade of accomplished applicants falling through the floor of Princeton’s committee room and into oblivion.

Unfortunately, the movie perpetuates Ivy League angst, promoting the wrong conversation in a country where community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher education—and where the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with a two- or four-year college degree is just 38.7 percent.

College costs may be one reason. They’ve jumped 440 percent in the last 25 years—which is three times the rate of inflation. A year at Princeton costs $56,750. Two-thirds of students who graduated from a U.S. college in 2011 had loan debt, averaging $26,500 per borrower.

Listen to complaints about how many students are rejected from top schools with near-perfect SAT scores and it will be easy to ignore a more jarring statistic: scores on the exams used in college admissions have plummeted in recent years, suggesting that more students today are struggling with vocabulary, the meanings of words, sentence structure and math problems.

“When less than half of kids who want to go to college are prepared to do so, that system is failing,” former College Board president Gaston Caperton told The Washington Post last fall.

In reporting trips to schools in the impoverished state of Mississippi, I’ve been able to see up close the many challenges that keep higher education beyond the reach of the poor—and the poorly educated. Students there have the lowest ACT scores in the nation, averaging 18.7 points, which is well below the national mean of 21.1. The maximum score on the ACT is 36; many top colleges want to see scores of 30 or above.

You won’t see too many stories about it, though. Major media attention tends to focus on elite schools and who gets into Harvard, a topic I devoted years to covering as a higher-education reporter because editors insisted that readers find it fascinating.

The reporting reinforced my suspicion that there is almost nothing affluent parents with checkbooks at the ready won’t do—starting well before preschool—to give their progeny a leg up. That might mean hiring consultants who charge up to $40,000 to orchestrate college applications, or sending their teenagers off to a four-day application “boot camp” that costs $14,000.

Digging a little deeper, I learned a great deal from admissions deans like Harvard’s William Fitzsimmons, who never allowed me to sit in on committee discussions weighing the merits of applicants, but invited me to a meeting about how low-income students were faring at Harvard.

The answer? They often struggle mightily, a fact that elite college presidents have picked up on; some have spoken out about the need to attract more students who don’t come from affluent backgrounds and do more to make them feel comfortable.

The strategy sounds great, but low-income students with top grades and scores often don’t even apply to the most prestigious schools.

In fact, only a tiny fraction of students even consider applying to or attending elite institutions, according to Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and now head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

“A few years ago, I met a young woman who had been ostracized by her parents because she only got into Wesleyan, [the University of] Chicago and Swarthmore,” said Levine, adding that the problem is also a changing economy that requires postsecondary education.

“When four percent of the college-age population attended higher education in 1900, everyone shopped at Tiffany’s,” he said. “With more than 70 percent of high-school grads entering postsecondary education [now], it’s more like shopping at Walmart—so there is greater pressure to attend a university that marks or differentiates one from the Walmart shoppers.”

At The Hechinger Report, we focus on some of the more urgent issues in higher education, like college costs, access and completion. We’ve looked at schools that are doing a particularly good job at integrating students of color on campus, along with those who have work to do. We’ve questioned why some colleges may be misrepresenting admissions statistics, and tried to keep an eye on the obstacles in the way of President Barack Obama’s laudable goal of getting more Americans to earn college degrees.

We’ve also reported how a community-college degree can be lucrative—and that significant numbers of grads are getting better jobs and earning more at the start of their careers than those with bachelor’s degrees.

Beginning a new conversation about admissions is easier said than done, although I highly recommend the work of Lloyd Thacker at The Education Conservancy as a starting point. I’ve given a copy of his terrific book College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy to many a friend and family member.

But as I contemplate the hundreds of thousands of dollars we may be shelling out to educate the teenagers in my family, I’ve also recommended The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions: Strategies for Helicoptering, Hot-Housing & Micromanaging.

In his review of Admission, New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott notes that he is “the father of a high school junior, paying my tithe to the test prep gods while preparing to sacrifice most of my worldly goods on the altar of the liberal arts…”

Scott added: “How could anyone make light of the brutal, capricious system by which our young people are judged and sorted?”

People do so because the target is an easy one, and the conversation isn’t changing—though it should be.

I asked Thacker—who said he doesn’t plan to see Admission—for some ideas. His long list includes guidance for parents, teachers and students on how to change “the market-drenched admissions process,” which he says imperils qualities like curiosity and risk-taking by emphasizing “where a student goes to college over what a student does in college.”

Sounds like a good start to me.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 4, 2013