Putting the College Process in Its Place

Crabby wants to put the college process in its place…

Proposition: The college admission/application process has become far too ponderous and complex. It has ceased to be a complementary part of secondary school life and instead become central, overwhelming the academics and extracurriculars it is supposed to observe and highlight. Colleges and high schools need to find ways to ensure the college process doesn’t unnecessarily distort students’ lives so they can progress appropriately through their pre-collegiate schooling and be ready for post-secondary education. 

I’d like to get everyone in the college admission process biz thinking about what we have done to students, parents, schooling, and college life as the process has grown well beyond normal human limits. At one time a natural outgrowth of many students’ secondary educations, it has been integrated into many high schools’ curricula as if it were an academic subject; become a rationale for behavior instead of a recorder of activity; fostered the growth of costly ancillary supports; exacerbated the gulf between privileged and non-privileged students; created a climate of suspicion and deception among all participants; fostered the explosion of testing and test prep (which have also overtaken many classrooms); and ultimately distorted the entire educational process.

Although those of us involved in the process know about these effects, we tend to accept them without truly considering whether or not they are useful or necessary. The bottom line, however, is that students end up as hostages, forced to accede to whatever is demanded of them. As an admission officer in the 90s, I began to realize my very highly competitive institution was looking for graduate student-level undergraduates. As the years went on, competition became fiercer as we tried to separate the “Walk on Water” (“WOW”) kids from the “merely wonderful.” As a college counselor in the 2000s, I heard students lament about their 5-AP schedules and constant night and weekend activities, all in the name of getting into (a highly competitive) college.

Without taking anything away from applicants’ accomplishments, are we really doing them a favor by setting the bar so high so soon in their lives? Is this even developmentally appropriate? Surely there’s a connection between rushing students into “success” and the many psychological and social issues now occupying so much of high school counselors’ and college deans’ time. (Never mind the new trend of having kindergarten be “academic” instead of socializing.)

Efforts to “lessen stress” or calm the “frenzy” of the college process are futile as long as the behaviors promoted by the process itself remain in place. While we criticize students and parents who go to great lengths to “game” the system, we should consider that they may really be just rational actors playing the game as well as they can play it. Those who know the rules know how to use them to their advantage; those who don’t are left behind, and other agencies have to fill in the blanks. Efforts by high schools and colleges to short-circuit these behaviors  simply lead to different forms of frenzy because they don’t address the fundamental issues that surround access to college. The process is like the legendary seven-headed Hydra: Every head cut off produces two more. The whole beast needs to be defeated.

The college process doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course; there are many social, economic, and cultural forces that drive and influence it. It is essential when looking at it to consider how it has changed due to these factors. Perceptions of scarcity and status; uncertainty about the value of higher education; liberal arts versus STEM paths (a false but real dichotomy); privileged scions versus new arrivals; ultra-competitive colleges versus nearly all others, all contribute to how the process has been created and maintained.

The mechanics of the process have developed and changed over the years since the SAT was introduced and the Common Application became a standard-issue form. The various aspects that are not testing or applications have also grown exponentially:  marketing, online platforms, college tours (even for third graders), opportunities for summer “enrichment” and so on keep expanding to fill any perceived void. The rows of vendors at college admission conferences grow each year, offering to alleviate any number of problems that present themselves.

The conceptual and moral dimensions of the process are much harder to perceive and address. We know about the “stress” and “frenzy” and we lament them, but, we shrug, what can you do? We can see that an overemphasis on outward signs of success and accomplishment even before entering college has overwhelmed the idea that students attend college to learn and therefore must be open to being taught, yet we often value the glittery overachiever more than the curious but quiet thinker. Students are pressured to do more than they may be capable if they want to compete. “Leadership” is the new buzzword, but if everyone’s a leader, then what?

The professional organization overseeing the college process, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a lengthy set of rules and regulations governing the behaviors of those involved. The mechanics are well covered. The rest is a constant source of debate at conferences, but is much harder to get a grasp of: This is what we do, but should we be doing it this way?

I am not suggesting we return to some mythical golden age of college admission. As Jerome Karabel showed us in his definitive study The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, there’s no such thing. I suggest, however, that we take a long, hard look at the college admission process in the context of  “high school to college culture” in the 21st century. If we are truly aghast at what it’s doing to students and others, we need to consider more than tinkering with the mechanics and think about what it actually does beyond serving as a conduit to post-secondary education. We need a full-on evaluation of the process that will give us a way to address causes, not just symptoms.

I propose we do just that: Look at the process not just from a mechanical, functional perspective, but from a social, cultural, and educational perspective. Perhaps there are ways we can alleviate some of the problems we lament. Perhaps we really can calm the “frenzy” instead of just repeating bromides over and over again, hoping to instill a Zen-like sensibility into students and parents. A disinterested but comprehensive study could go a long way toward helping us achieve a better balance between “performance” and “authenticity” for students. In the end, that would benefit us all.

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