Deconstructing “college”

As I have followed stories about higher education over the past few months, I have noticed that certain topics are gaining traction across a broad range of media outlets. These topics are: MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the impact they have on traditional models of college education; the escalation of college costs and correspondingly high levels of education-related debt incurred by students; whether the benefits of a college education justify the costs; advocacy for skipping college altogether.

These articles jogged my thinking about the ways in which our society regards a college education, and the literal and symbolic value college carries.

More recently, I picked up Madeline Levine’s 2012 book, “Teach Your Children Well.”

Teach Your Children Well

Her call to “embrace a healthier and radically different way of thinking about success” really resonated with me, and I’m very interested in the fact that Levine cites admission to a top-tier or prestigious college as one of the inadequate and misleading “metrics” our society uses to define success. She offers numerous and compelling examples of how this “metric” has been harmful and disruptive to the students and families she sees in her clinical practice – if anyone out there needs persuasive cautionary tales to relate to parents with whom you are working, this book offers plenty.

Here is an excerpt from the book that encapsulates the argument Levine pursues throughout the book:

“We need to harness our fears about our children’s futures and understand that the extraordinary focus on metrics that has come to define success today – high grades, trophies, and selective school acceptances from preschools to graduate schools – is a partial and frequently deceptive definition. At its best, it encourages academic success for a small group of students but gives short shrift to the known factors that are necessary for success later in life. It makes the false assumption that high academic success early in life is a harbinger of competence is many spheres, including interpersonal relations and sense of self. Sometimes this is the case; often it is not. Perhaps of even greater concern, because it involves far more kids, is the fact that our limited definition of success fails to acknowledge those students whose potential contributions are not easily measurable.” (page xv)

Maybe this is synchronicity in action, but not long after I began Levine’s book, the topic of the metrics we use to evaluate people came up again, in a different context. As part of a series of articles about leadership and management, the New York Times carried an interesting interview with Lazlo Bock, a human resources professional (specifically, a “senior vice president of people operations”) at Google. These comments especially caught my eye:

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation…What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

As I pulled the strands together, these various readings made me wonder if we are on the verge of a tipping point when it comes to our thinking about college, what a college degree means, and the way prestige factors into the equation of college preference.

Up till now, it has seemed to me that prestige was a variable that outweighed most others when many students and parents assessed the literal and figurative costs and benefits of college choice. Over the years, I have worked with many parents who promised their children: “If you get into an Ivy League school, we’ll find a way to pay for it.” On the flip side, I’ve also worked with parents who told their children that they will only “shell out for a private college if you get into a school with a big name – otherwise, you can go to our state university.”

I consider myself lucky, however, that I never had a conversation like one Levine recounts in her book, in which a father, upon hearing his son mention Harvard as a school he might want to apply to, said: “Now there’s a school I would give my left testicle to get my son into.” (p.4)

Whether they state it that graphically or not, we know that many parents have heretofore been willing to sacrifice a great deal in order for their children to attend a prestigious, “top tier” college.

So I am really intrigued by the increasingly persistent call, from a variety of sources, for us to re-evaluate our definitions of success and to think again about the traditional model of a four-year college education, its costs, and the value added (if any) by attending a prestigious institution. As I play around with these ideas, it seems to me that the slow pace of economic recovery in the US, combined with the steady increase in college costs, is accelerating this re-evaluation process, and decreasing the importance of prestige as a factor in the college selection process, even for those who can afford the tuition without making significant financial sacrifices. I work with a small group of students, so I don’t have the data to support a generalization at this point. However, I would love to hear from colleagues in the college admissions world who are seeing a change in the role that prestige plays as students make final college choices. Please leave comments on the site, or email me at:

Other, and very significant, changes in the terrain of higher education are already upon us. The idea that a college degree is not a necessary component of success got a big boost from Peter Thiel’s fellowship program.  Started in 2010, the program offers successful applicants $100,000 apiece to skip college and pursue “their work, their research, and their self-education.”  Check out the “UnCollege” website  for another approach to skipping college and “hacking your education,” as founder Dale Stephens puts it. And to dip into the world of MOOC’s, have a look at the edX and Coursera  websites.

It’s hard to say what the world(s) of higher education will look like in the next five years or so, and I can only guess at how the nature and substance of college counseling will evolve as options for higher education multiply. It will be fascinating to see how institutions and individuals react to these changes.

Brave new world’s a-comin’, that’s for sure.

Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

Well, May just flashed by, and a number of projects and events took me away from blogging for several weeks. Apologies for the extended silence in AdmissionsCafe, and thank you for your patience!

Now that things have mostly quieted down for the class of 2013 and current seniors have made their college choices for fall, juniors (and their parents) are revving up for coming marathon of the 2013-2014 admissions cycle. With “CA4,” (the latest version of the Common Application) on the horizon, the months ahead are sure to be interesting.

Members of the Class of 2014 won’t have to worry about the changes in the Common App, of course – CA4 will simply be what they know as the Common App. College counselors and college admissions personnel who have been through earlier iterations of the Common App will be the ones making comparisons, and beginning sentences with phrases like: “well, last year it worked like this…” From what I’ve seen so far, (kudos, by the way, to the Common App board and to all those who worked on the many aspects of the new version!) CA4 looks like a very effective and user-friendly revision. I’m especially enthusiastic about the changes to the writing section, and am eager to see how students respond to the new essay prompts.  

When changes to the writing section were announced last fall, I commented on the hue and cry over the disappearance of the “topic of your choice” prompt. (See post of 12 October 2012) I’m happy to see that it hasn’t returned, and I think the new prompts encourage essays that offer self-reflection. This is a big improvement – I felt that the previous prompts were written in such a way as to discourage reflection. The previous prompts led with the invitation to describe a person, event, or issue of importance. The request for reflection, to “tell us why this is important to you,” tacked onto the end of the prompt, led many students to think that this was of less importance to readers.

In addition, the new prompts, by giving students well-defined and specific topics to which they can react, provide structure for the responses that I think they will find helpful. We’ll have to see how things go as students begin to craft their responses, but my hunch is these prompts will do a better job of eliciting useful information about applicants for admissions officers.

I have mixed feelings about the 650 word limit on the essay, and I will be interested to see how students respond to it. In combination with the new prompts, the word limit should certainly cut down on the number of recycled class assignment essays that applicants submit, which will be a boon for admissions officers. And the 650 word limit for the essay is not out of line with length restrictions that versions of the University of California application, for example, have contained. I am eager to see how the word limit will be perceived by students, though. Will there be any characteristics common to the respondents who feel that 650 words is too few? Will there be characteristics shared by those who feel that 650 words is way too many? Will there be a pattern of differences emerging between the two camps? I do like the fact that a variety of opinion on this matter has been anticipated in the Common App instructions: I smiled when I read that “650 words is your limit, not your goal.”

Looking at another area of CA4, the ability to create “alternate versions” of the Common Application still seems like an existential oxymoron to me. (Also, each time a student wants to create an alternate version of the Common App, I’m reminded of Calvin’s “duplicator” machine in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Click here and here to see two of those cartoons.) However, I understand the genuine motivations for, as well as the superstitions and anxieties that provoke students to create alternate versions of the application. I’d love to know the reasoning behind the decision to allow “unlimited” edits to all parts of the application except the essay, though, and to know why the number of essay revisions was capped at three. I understand the rationale about balancing the need for students to make corrections and updates to sections of the application with the philosophy of a “common” application, as one of the Common App explanatory notes says. But why three essay versions? Why not two or four? Is there a dry, technical reason for this, or did the discussions about this limit veer into the realm of philosophy? (In the latter case, I wonder if we can look forward to earnest, if esoteric, conference presentations about the nature of the essential self, as seen through the lens of the Common Application…)

In any event, one of the great things about working in college admissions is that the scene is always changing. No two years are ever exactly alike, despite overall similarities in the cycle as a whole. Clearly, the changes embodied in CA4 and the ways in which students respond to the new version will keep things lively this fall. So all hail CA4! Here’s hoping the August 1 launch goes smoothly.