Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Who’s the College Applicant?

In 1968, iconic American essayist Joan Didion penned a column for the Saturday Evening Post about being rejected from Stanford back in 1952. She describes her utter despair during the experience, as she relates to her seventeen-year-old cousin who “is unable to eat or sleep” as she awaits the college admissions decision from her top choice. And if that was the situation back in the 1950s and 60s, I can’t imagine what Didion would think of the pressure cooker high school seniors face today.

As the December college admissions dates approach, I’m struck by Didion’s insight that too often the college application process is more about the parents than the kids. Didion explains the wisdom she realized decades after her college disappointment. As a successful writer at that point, she explained, “none of it matters very much … these early successes, early failures.” In pondering her cousin’s struggle, Didion hoped people could “find some way to let our children know this … [because] finding one’s role at seventeen is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.”

Didion’s advice was mirrored recently by writer Allison Tate in a piece for the Washington Post titled “College Admissions are Tough Enough – Parents, Don’t Make it Any Worse.” As the mother of two college-aged children, Tate recalled angst-filled conversations she’s had with young people about applying to college. They wonder if they should start a club, if they’re taking the right classes, if their parents will be proud of them if they don’t get into the right school. One student mentioned a college he liked and which was a good fit, but then lamented, “I can’t apply there. My dad says it’s not a good school.”

Too often, successful, high-achieving students who just want to get into “a good college” are left feeling inadequate and disappointed in their accomplishments. Just for perspective, there are roughly 6000 post-secondary institutions in the United States, and more than 3000 degree-granting colleges and universities. So, when students aim for the top ten percent of colleges, they have literally hundreds of options. Even on the most selective lists, there are more than thirty schools in the top one percent. Sadly, however, too many people believe there are really only a few that are even worth considering.

This misleading and myopic view of higher education has spawned an entire industry which exploits the anxiety of the college admissions process. Many people believe they can, or must, play the college admissions game by getting advice from specialized college admissions counselors. However, unless there’s some sort of corrupt deal-making like in the Varsity Blues scandal a few years ago, none of these counselors are actually getting a kid into the college. It’s more likely the private college counselor industry is simply preying on the insecurities of families who have been led to believe their child is not going to get into a good college, or better said “the right college.”

This obsessive pursuit of admission to the right school was the focus of a recent New York Times article on elite colleges. The impetus was an interview with actress Felicity Huffman who went to jail for her part in the college admissions scandal. In a statement that is “both shocking and illuminating,” Huffman justified her actions by saying “I felt like I had to give my daughter a future.” The pressure that led an affluent, well-connected celebrity to pay someone to “fix” her daughter’s SAT score reflects the mystifying actions some parents will take to gain an advantage to their children’s college process.

New York Times writer Frank Bruni has researched the college admissions process, and he is particularly critical of ideas like a “good college” or “the right school.” Bruni, who turned down Yale University to attend North Carolina, published his findings in his book Where You Go is not Who You’ll Be. Alison Tate believes terms like “reach school,” “dream college,” and “safety school” should be abolished from any authentic conservation about colleges between students and their parents. Seriously, what child would be proud and excited to attend their safety school?

As Didion pointed out years ago, growing up is hard enough without the pressure of “the right school.” Several years ago I listened to a parent of a graduating senior give some advice to the parents of incoming freshmen who were about to embark on their high school career. “Remember,” she said, “you’re raising a child, not a college applicant.”

Monday, December 4, 2023

It’s Probably the Cell Phones

A recent column for The Villager

“Hey! Look up! Stop texting and just walk.”

The number of times teachers these days have to say that to students simply to avoid a collision in the hallway is truly staggering. Gen Z and now Generation Alpha are so glued to their phones they can barely look away for a few minutes walking from one class to another. And, of course, the minute they arrive in their classrooms before the bell, they sit at their desks hunched over the screen again, scrolling an endless stream of addictive media.

NBC News recently reported on the overwhelming digital stimulus kids are bombarded with every day. According to a report from Common Sense Media, the average kid and teenager receives nearly 300 messages or notifications every day. Some users report getting as many as 5000 in a twenty-four hour period. That sort of sensory and emotional overload simply can’t be beneficial to the brain. Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, laments how young people "literally wake up and before they go to the bathroom, they're on their phone.”

The problem – truly a sociological epidemic – has become so pervasive and detrimental that the state of Florida recently passed legislation virtually banning the use of cell phones, especially the social media app Tik-Tok, by students during class time. All districts must develop clear specific policies which prevent the use of cell phones by students during school hours unless directed to use them for instructional purposes. And, of course, in places where students have laptops or computer access, the cell phone is completely unnecessary at school. In signing the bill, Florida governor Ron DeSantis noted social media “does more harm than good.”

The incessant presence of cell phones is clearly playing a key role in social problems with teens. Noah Smith, a researcher and columnist for Bloomberg media, notes a strong correlation between rising rates of unhappiness in teens and their pervasive cell phone existence. From rising absenteeism to stagnant academic results to stunning levels of reported anxiety and depression, along with an overwhelming ennui and sense of detached hopelessness, there’s little doubt kids are struggling in ways they haven’t before.

While many people blame the isolation of the pandemic for teen mental health issues, Smith’s analysis of the data suggests the problems began to rise exponentially in about 2012, which is about the time smartphones became a common accessory for people. Psychologist Jean Twenge agrees, naming the young people of today “iGen,” the title of her book which is subtitled “Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

Tik-Tok is undoubtedly fueling dissatisfaction with the world, especially among young people. A New York Times story recently suggested “Tik-Tok economics” is the reason young people fret about the economy despite key indicators trending positive. In fact, one social media creator has even coined the phrase “Vibecession” to reflect the economic despair young people are expressing on social media in contrast to positive economic news. And research suggests young people predominantly get their news from Tik-Tok, using it as a search engine more than Google.

Years ago on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, comedian Louis C.K. gave an amusing but sincere explanation for why he wouldn’t get his daughter a cell phone. He decried what he called “the forever empty,” which is our constant need for stimulus and validation. People continuously reach for their cell phones because they can’t be alone, having lost the ability to simply “be yourself and not be doing something.” This constant craving for entertainment or distraction or validation consumes people so much they can’t even sit in their cars at a stoplight for forty-five seconds without reaching for their cell phone. From the dentist’s office to the barber shop to the line at the post office, everyone is scrolling.

Cell phones are not going away, but we can take a few basic steps to decrease the corrosive influence they have on our lives. One simple bit of advice – ok, it’s kind of a directive – that I give my students everyday is to simply not walk with their cell phones in their hands. Put it in a pocket or in their backpack. Stop texting, stop scrolling, stop Snapping, stop streaming, and just walk.

As everyone takes a few days off this week to celebrate Thanksgiving and hopefully reconnect with friends and families, let’s try to leave the cell phones out of it.