Monday, April 19, 2021

Where They Go Is Not Who They Are

In my most recent column for The Villager, I considered all the high school seniors who are now hearing from colleges about their applications. 

Where They Go isn’t Who They Are

“We’ve decided on two colleges: Harvard or Yale.”

I actually heard that comment once from the parents of a freshman in high school; I’m pretty sure they hadn’t actually confirmed this with the colleges in question. Now, as spring arrives and high school seniors learn where they’ve been accepted, I’m thinking about the complicated college admissions game and the unnecessary angst it puts on many families.

The recent Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues” about the 2019 college admissions scandal exposes the seedy details of wealthy parents gaming the system to secure spots at elite colleges “through the side door.” That actually meant bribery, altered test scores, phony athletics admissions, and more. Of course, these intense, unethical efforts to get into college actually reflect only a tiny percentage of the millions of high school seniors who apply to college each year. Most students simply study hard, find a few schools which are appropriate for them, apply in the regular process, get admitted, and go off to college like students have always done.

For others, however, the college admissions game has fostered a cottage industry of private college counselors who prey on the anxiety of students and their families. Operation Varsity Blues exposes the most extreme cases of counselors using personal connections, college rankings, and even the media to cast uncertainty on a higher education system that is actually more accessible than it’s ever been. Yet many successful, well-educated students literally believe they won’t get into college, or at least not “a good one.” As a result, countless families spend thousands of dollars for assistance getting their child into schools, often unnecessarily.

Most Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials would acknowledge they never needed private college counselors, college application boot camps, standardized test prep classes, or endless hours of tutoring to get into college. The reality is younger Millennials and Gen Zers don’t either. Granted, more students are applying to college than ever before, and each school only has a specific number of spots. It’s the shrinking pool of interest in a few schools that exacerbates the myth of access. In reality, if a student requires excessive hours of tutoring, editing, and counseling to craft the perfect college profile, the application probably isn’t an accurate representation of the student, and the dream school isn’t the right choice. And if their primary choices don’t have room, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of comparable opportunities for a college education.

Too often bright, qualified students are crushed by not being admitted to one specific school or program, such as engineering at the University of Michigan, only to begrudgingly accept admission to an equal or even higher ranked school like Illinois, Purdue, or Colorado School of Mines. Ironically, every year students from Texas, Michigan, and Virginia are surely devastated by not getting into their dream school of CU-Boulder, while young Coloradans turn their noses up at their home state while desperately hedging their entire future on acceptance to Virginia, Michigan, or Texas. These stories would be absurdly funny if they weren’t so sad.

There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and that means there are hundreds of top-tier premiere schools. Sadly, too many families believe there are only a few acceptable schools. The Ivy League consists of just eight schools, and many people are surprised to learn elite colleges like Stanford, Duke, and MIT aren’t even part of that group. After all, the Ivy League is actually just a football league.

Time Magazine has published numerous stories over the past two decades to emphasize how career access, future earnings, and professional success are actually more related to an individual student’s qualities rather than the institution granting the degree. Time researchers followed students who were accepted into elite institutions but chose not to attend for numerous reasons. Years out of school, they were no less successful than similar students who attended those schools. In many cases they were actually more successful with lower debt and far less stress.

The unrealistic perceptions and misguided beliefs of students about college choices led Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, to research colleges and reveal the truth about higher education, the admissions game, and the status of schools. In 2015, he published “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: an Antidote to the College Admissions Game.” Perhaps that book should be added to the required curriculum for students and parents.

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