The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College counselor: I’m sick of reading about golden kids getting into Harvard. Here’s the story I want to see.

Harvard University  (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
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Last month, Brennan Barnard, a college counselor at a private school in New Hampshire, wrote a piece on how the college admissions process for many students had become something akin to The Hunger Games. He wrote:

In an ideal world, college preparatory education would encourage students who crave knowledge, seek community engagement, desire connection and live their values.  We say we want our children to feel secure, be inspired and take risks with their curiosity.  The reality of “The Hunger Games” comes closer to the truth, where students battle to survive in application pools seeming to demand perfection.

How college admissions has become something akin to The Hunger Games

Here’s a new piece by Barnard, who is the director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades 6-12 in Manchester, about how he would prefer college admissions to be.

Forget Harvard and Stanford. It really doesn’t matter where you go to college.

By Brennan Barnard

I am scrolling down my Facebook feed and there it is,  yet another link to a news headline about the “golden child” who won the Ivy League sweepstakes, admitted to each of the eight prestigious schools.  My eyes roll as I start to daydream about the news piece I would  LIKE to see.  It would look something like this:

Young Man Admitted to Five CTCL Colleges:  Life Destined to  Change
A high school senior from suburban New Hampshire recently learned that each of five schools on the Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) list have offered him admission.  Guilford, Lawrence, Whitman, Rhodes and Beloit notified him over the last month with the good news.  As he received his news, his classmates were also learning decisions—both good and bad—from state schools, international universities, Ivy League institutions, highly selective small liberal arts colleges and Big Ten universities.
Overjoyed by a successful application process, he exclaimed, “now the hard work begins…deciding on where to go.”
When asked about the geographic diversity of schools on his list, this senior class vice-president and varsity soccer player explained, “I want to go to college in an area that is outside my comfort zone and away from New England.”
He first learned about the schools on his list when he attended a CTCL college fair in the spring of his junior year.  Officially launched in 1998, this consortium of colleges grew out of the popular book of the same name written by the late Loren Pope, a counselor, journalist, advocate and education editor at the New York Times.  “Colleges That Change Lives” is a “leading national voice in the field of college choice” and “dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process.”  Grounded in the philosophy that the college search should be about the individual student, the organization seeks to challenge assumptions and myths about which colleges are “best” and offering an alternative to rankings and ratings.
His parents read Pope’s second book — “Looking Beyond The Ivy League,” which challenged the “status-conscious world of higher education” — in one sitting and his father said that he was “struck that these lesser known colleges on my son’s list actually have a higher percentage of students pursuing doctoral degrees than the big name schools that families are talking about on the party circuit.”
The excited senior said he was convinced from the get-go.  “I wanted a strong education that would leave me with excellent opportunities after college, but I also wanted a school where I could expand my worldview, learn about myself and grow as an individual and citizen,” he explained when we spoke with him last week at his mid-sized public high school.

If you ask me, as a college counselor and admission officer for two decades, such an article would be newsworthy. Instead we hear about the young woman admitted to five Ivy League Schools, or the second Ivy League “sweep” at a New York high school.  We read about how “getting into an elite school” is a “frenzied, soul-deadening process” and we learn about which college is the hardest to “get into” in each state.

News articles reveal that nearly half of the first-year class at schools such as Columbia University are being filled through early decision, fueling the angst about college admission and the need to “game” the process.  Even satirical news points out the absurd ultra-selectivity of admission to this small subset of institutions, as Frank Bruni did so perfectly in his recent New York Times piece about Stanford University’s supposed zero percent acceptance rate. (Actually, Stanford admitted 4.7 percent of applicants for fall 2016.)

This “trophy” mentality to college admission fueled by such articles seems more appropriate for tabloid fodder than thoughtful reporting on the transformative value of higher education.  If we want to honor distinction, how about applauding the fact that the New College of Florida (a CTCL school) has more Fulbright Scholars per capita than any Ivy League institution?  If the headlines each spring continue to support this limited fixation on 5 percent of the most selective colleges and universities, we are just perpetuating an unhealthy culture of competition and elitism.

What we don’t hear about is the other 95 percent of colleges with admit rates between 40 percent and 100 percent.  Nor do we read articles about the students who are not making themselves sick with anxiety over college admission.  Certainly there is an epidemic that deserves attention about the ways in which the college process is impacting young people, their families, health and sanity.  In fact, I have written about the need to address this unhealthy competition and fixation on admission to highly selective colleges and universities.

High school seniors around the country are nervously awaiting college admissions decisions. The Post's Nick Anderson explains a few unexpected factors school officials consider when choosing whom to admit. (Video: Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

We must also celebrate the stories of the majority who are leading thoughtful, intentional lives and are applying to — and enrolling in — colleges and universities that are less celebrated.  Despite our initial unfamiliarity with these colleges, they are indeed changing young people’s lives and meeting their aspirations for a top-flight education.  We need to read about the first generation student who has worked nearly full-time throughout high school to help support her family and has been offered a generous aid package from Denison University, or the slew of students proudly attending their state university and going on to lead successful, meaningful lives.  I applaud pieces like the recent Forbes article about companies such as Google who are unconcerned with the Ivy League pedigree.

Here are admit rates for the class of 2018 (the most recent data available from the National Center for Educational Statistics) at these institutions: Guilford (62 percent), Lawrence (73 percent), Whitman (41 percent), Rhodes (60 percent) and Beloit (69 percent), Reed College (39 percent), and Berklee College of Music (40 percent).  Wouldn’t it be nice to see stories of students pursuing equine science and pre-veterinary studies at the University of Vermont (73 percent) or peace and global studies at Earlham College (65 percent).

I have helped send many students to the Ivy League and other highly selective schools over the years.  But I have worked with equally as many young people who explored one or more of the other thousands of colleges and universities in our country, if not the world.  I could fill a book with stories of students who attended institutions with admit rates of 50 percent or above and went on to lead fulfilling and successful lives in lucrative jobs that they loved.  Now that is news we all can use.

Goucher College, a private liberal arts college in Baltimore County, is now also accepting video applications as an alternative to the traditional college application process. (Video: The Washington Post)