I’m sick of the “it’s tough applying to colleges” genre

Today, Rebecca Catalanello has a detailed, thoughtful story in the St. Pete Times all about getting rejected by private and flagship state universities. And I gritted my teeth through every paragraph because nowhere in the piece is there any discussion of a few facts:

  • Every single one of the high school seniors she interviewed was accepted somewhere.
  • The majority of institutions she discussed were private universities. 
  • The only public non-flagship university she named (the University of Central Florida) was described explicitly as a "safety school." 
  • The plurality or majority of this year's high school seniors attending college in the fall will be in public two-year colleges or public non-flagship four-year colleges and universities. 
  • The single greatest barrier for many of these seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but the ability broadly speaking to afford to attend college full-time (and by this I mean the ability to afford tuition, other direct costs of attending, and also the opportunity cost of freeing up enough time to study and pass classes at a full-time pace). 
  • The greatest barrier for many other seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but budget cuts that make it harder for a college or university to offer the courses needed for graduation. 
  • The greatest barrier for yet other seniors will not be the inability to be admitted into every place you apply but questions about whether they have the skills and background to pass classes the first semester in college.

I don't blame Catalanello for the topic: the "it's tough applying to college" newspaper feature/series is a standard for papers and enough subscribers are going to see themselves in the story that they will find it useful. The New York Times devotes an entire blog to the topic: The Choice, so one long feature on a Sunday is easily newsworthy. On the other hand, I do think both she and the St. Pete Times editors are culpable for not putting the anxieties of these students into broader perspective. 

The anxieties are real, but both newspaper coverage of it and the amateur documentary Race to Nowhere on high-achiever anxiety are the educational equivalent of political campaign "horserace" coverage: who's in and out, the behind-the-scenes gurus (campaign consultants or college-admissions helpers), the emotional highs and lows, and almost nothing substantive about the deeper choices families and our society make regarding the importance of education.

The truth about college-admission anxieties is that wealthy parents and school officials in wealthy communities have done far more to perpetuate such anxieties than anything George W. Bush did either as governor or president. Quick question: did commercial test-prep books flood your nearest bookstore before or after former President Bush signed NCLB in January 2002? As David Labaree points out, plenty of parents push for public schools to serve their private interests, in this case by helping their children gain admission into nominally elite colleges and universities. As Maryland teacher Ken Bernstein told me when I suggested that Race to Nowhere ignored the fact that most colleges were non-competitive: "parents of my AP kids don't want to hear about non-competitive colleges." 

The solution is neither to give the same type of anxieties to all high school students nor to fantasize away the existence of standardized testing, the need for academic rigor in high school, or the competitiveness of certain segments of higher education. Instead, we need more high school counselors who talk more like Cal Newport than like the stereotypical hyperactive Manhattan private counselor: shrewd and understanding that teenagers can have real lives and also study hard. And we parents need to back off the vicarious status games some of us live through our children. When my daughter made up her mind fairly early in high school that she wanted to attend a small liberal-arts college, we started scheduling visits, and we also told her the facts of life with liberal-arts admissions:

  • Public liberal-arts colleges such as New College of Florida are far less selective than either the nationally-known liberal-arts colleges such as Oberlin or the elite private universities. 
  • The more selective private liberal-arts colleges were still going to be less selective than places such as Stanford and Harvard, but the majority of applicants aren't admitted.
  • The first decision admissions offices in small colleges make is to narrow down the applicant pool to the group admissions officers think can succeed, and for that the record of achievement is key (GPA, test scores, and letters of recommendation). For this filter, doing well in high school in a range of challenging courses is pretty good evidence.
  • The second decision admissions offices in small colleges make is the composition of a class, and for that they use far more subjective evidence, responding to essays and letters of recommendation.

I am simplifying this quite a bit, but it's useful for explaining what one can and cannot control as a high school student. You can control your own academic work; you cannot control idiosyncratic decisions that try to split admissions from rejections for large groups of students who have very similar academic records. The second stage is the part of college admissions that's a crapshoot, and our advice to our daughter was that instead of trying to "look good" by guessing and then gaming what presumably colleges are looking for, it made much better sense just to be herself and not worry about the part of decision-making that was much more random than the "would graduate if admitted" filter. This advice was pretty easy parenting because that was how she was treating the admissions process, and so what we said was more a matter of inoculating her against later anxieties when we thought her friends might be talking about their own admissions anxieties. 

As it turned out, my daughter had a reasonable choice of institutions that admitted her, and of her close friends in high school, I think there was only one case of a rejection by a first-choice school. The limits on where her friends could attend college was not who admitted them but what they and their parents could afford. I can assure you all that the Rutgers and Georgia Tech financial aid offices have missed huge opportunities with two incredibly hardworking young women, but faculty at the University of Florida will gain the benefit. 

I'm not worried about my daughter's friends, nor would I be if they had expressed concerns about all the "problems" of students Catalanello followed. I am far more worried about students I teach (or students like them) who have problems affording books, or being able to study more each week than working, or who make poor choices about how to spend weekends. I worry about students who think a 10-12 page term paper is too long. I worry about students who are in violent relationships. I worry about students for all sorts of real problems, but not whether they got some notional prize for being admitted to all the competitive colleges they applied to. 

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3 responses to “I’m sick of the “it’s tough applying to colleges” genre”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    What about the moralist attack on the whole process as a corruption of youth and their parents? Like the WSJ review of Andrew Fergusons “Crazy U”?

  2. CCPhysicist

    The heck with Central Florida, the student described the University of Florida as a “safety school”. Their public relations people must be having a heart attack.

    Wait. If someone can have a 6.08 “weighted” GPA, a 4.50 GPA is pathetic. That nonsense has gotten completely out of control.

    From the article: “Top-tier universities report record numbers of applicants and record-low acceptance rates, a trend that shows little sign of ebbing.” Particularly when being Top Tier is based on having low acceptance rates. That is practically a tautology.

    You underestimate the size of 2-year programs. A majority will attend a CC. I think there is one CC in your state that has more students than all the universities put together.

    You should have put cost up at the top of your list. Duke lists its cost of attendance at $56,000 with a median grant of $35,000. Will a debt of $80,000 plus interest be paid off by the difference in starting salary between a UF grad and a Duke grad? A kid that good ought to be able to attend UF for free, and if you can afford the tuition for Duke you won’t get that grant.

  3. Glen S. McGhee

    GPA of 6.08? Venusian grading, maybe. Certainly not “terra firma.”