Ruining Our Children: The Scourge of College Admissions

Sometimes love is far worse than indifference. Parental love powers the frenzy over college admissions, but in the process it distorts every ideal of higher education while it robs adolescents of dignity and even of selfhood.
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Sometimes love is far worse than indifference. Parental love powers the frenzy over college admissions, but in the process it distorts every ideal of higher education while it robs adolescents of dignity and even of selfhood.

This is the first major decision that many young people will make about who they are and what they desire of life. It is their initiation experience, and its nature will tell them a great deal concerning the society they are about to enter as matured citizens. What it tells them at present is something of which we should be profoundly ashamed. We invite, even require, our young to gain entrance to institutions intended to inculcate ethical values by engaging in unethical and demeaning practices.

Speaking at the graduation ceremony of Concord Academy last spring, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky spoke of the human desire to master something. He urged upon these high school graduates "a worthy difficulty, a difficulty worthy of you," and then said, "The difficulty which you have been undertaking, to please admissions committees and colleges, that is a stupid difficulty." When he said that, the gathered students burst into loud laughter and applause, as if a curse had been lifted. But Pinsky went on to confess that the college-admissions challenge is a difficulty "as magnetic and hypnotic as a video game."

We, the parents, have been the chief hypnotists only because we ourselves have been hypnotized. For ourselves and our children, it is time to break the spell.

At present, we inculcate the young into our superstitions, first of all the belief, against all evidence, that where you attend college determines your fate. "Where you go to college is not important," Pinsky insisted in his talk. "It is a stupid distinction." It is stupid, at least, to place so much weight upon it when in reality so much of what happens is up to the individual. The self-starting, energetic student at a community college will learn more and do better afterwards than a sloth attending Harvard or Yale. When we look at the college affiliations of successful business people or writers or scientists or you name it, nearly all hold degrees from schools that are not ranked in an asinine Top Ten created by a failed news magazine. There can be and should be no escape from the fact that your destiny depends not on your trappings but on your creativity, integrity, and sweat. Yet when we make our children feel that their self-worth rests wholly on an impersonal institution's judgment, we suggest to them that they do not own themselves.

And that external judgment is not just arbitrary but creepy. In a typical college admissions process, student grade point in high school, by a wide margin the best measure of college success, is only a starting point. Next, the curriculum chosen by the student is considered, which would be fine if the evaluation was not so often one-size-fits-all. Woe to the girl or boy who takes a lot of fine-art courses rather than ten AP classes in history and physics. Worse, students are rated according to the high school they attend, and those schools are rated according to the percentage of students who attend college.

Stop there. Think about that tautology. Imagine that you are a poor kid who goes to a school in a tough neighborhood where the school cannot even offer a bevy of Advanced Placement courses and where very few of your classmates manage to graduate, much less attend college. Despite the steep odds created by social inequities, you not only graduate but earn all As. Maybe your school isn't as rigorous as Suburban High, but I dare anyone to say that you, rising spectacularly above your circumstances, are less worthy than the student who pulls gentleman's Bs at an expensive prep school, falling soundlessly under his wealthy family's pedigreed expectations -- and yet, as often as not, accepted as an economically valued "full pay" while you are lucky to make the waiting list.

Welcome to a fake meritocracy that reifies the status quo: the academically bottom quarter of rich kids attend colleges more frequently than the academically top quartile of poor kids. Remember too that most colleges and universities can afford only so much financial aid, and that there is a built-in incentive to prefer those who can pay more. Then, as if we haven't made the playing field sufficiently rutted and vertical just by economic circumstances, this ranking of schools and curricula extends the bias.

To increase the unfairness still further, we systematically over-value the SAT or ACT national tests. These exams are at best mediocre predictors of college success -- "I might as well be judging by shoe size," one college admissions officer confessed a few years ago in The Atlantic -- yet they are tremendously consequential. They are the very saliva of the national rabies over college admission, to such an extent that a lucrative industry has grown up in helping the students from wealthy families to attain high scores at a high cost.

Forget for a moment about the finding that students of color who earn the same grades in high school as white students and who go on to do equally well in college will, in between, score a hundred points lower on each exam, according to a USA Today article from last year. That's just another way by which we reinforce racism, push back the achieving of a diverse society, limit ambition, and seed injustice and social unrest. Forget all that. Think instead about all of the kids who go through those expensive courses or tutors helping them to do a bit better on the standardized exams. Are these academic steroids strengthening or undermining the notion of a love of learning, of thinking for its own innately human sake?

Worse, this ugly attempt to claw your kid's way into college implies that the only reason for doing anything -- including sports or civic engagement or studying -- is to get somewhere. Nothing has innate value. In such a grotesque system, now never quite becomes now, it is always just an instrument toward some future moment which of course will fail equally to be a now, for it too will be valued only for leading to the next step on this stairway to self-denigration. Race to the top, sure, but the top of what? To change the metaphor, out of the deep ocean of knowledge, we have somehow derived this shallows.

Yes, I know all that, we may say, but everyone else is doing it and we can't put our own child at a disadvantage. What disadvantage? The disadvantage of independence, of a reflective mind and a calm spirit, of discovering one's own interests and of following, as Emerson urged, where the soul leads? If that is a set of disadvantages, sign me and my children up.

There are other ways to ensure a more meaningful rigor in our schools and a more authentic spirit of self-challenge in our youth. It is a moment for parents and educators to stop the madness. Reversing a trend takes not only time but courage. That is the achievement test that matters most.

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