Confronting uncertainty

“The line that separates my mind from the Internet is getting blurry,” wrote psychologist Daniel Wegner in an article for the New York Times.  “This has been happening ever since I realized how often it feels as though I know something just because I can find it with Google.”

Indeed, with Google-enabled “knowing” and computer-enabled advances in “Big Data” collection and analysis, we now possess an unprecedented ability to access knowledge and to predict outcomes in many spheres.

And yet, as H.L. Mencken noted in Minority Report (1956): “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

One of the places in which the unknowable resolutely sits is the college admissions process. The whole process is rife with the unknowable, with uncertainty. Who will be admitted where? What’s the right college for me? How many students will choose to enroll in my institution’s incoming class? And this year’s big mystery: will the Common Application ever achieve full, error-free functionality?

Uncertainty is unsettling, to state the obvious.

Uncertainty is also the engine that drives much of the industry around college rankings, ratings and surveys of the undergraduate experience. The choice of a college (or to go to college at all) is significant, and laden with consequences both personal and financial. The quest for more information about colleges and about the admissions process (in general, and at specific schools) is at heart a quest for greater prediction and control of options and outcomes. Students (and their parents) want to make the right choices. When making an investment in a college education, they want some assurance about the return. As Jeffrey Selingo put it in his book College Unbound (2013):

 “Students need to know what they will get in terms of skills, knowledge, and employment prospects if they pick College A over College B.” (p. 141)

Unfortunately, all the information in the world won’t resolve the uncertainty involved when a student chooses College A over College B. No matter how much research you do beforehand, you won’t be able to predict, much less guarantee, the exact outcome.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to a parent with two children attending the same college. When Child #2 made the decision to enroll there, the family had as much information about the college as one could hope for – all the rankings, ratings, and surveys of undergraduate experience they had reviewed before Child #1 enrolled, (and updated during Child #2’s search) plus the insider’s view” of the academic and social life they garnered through the first child’s very positive experience. Child #2 had visited the campus many times, stayed overnight, and attended classes with Child #1. And yet, Child #2’s experience of the college has turned out to be nothing like Child #1’s. Child #2 is hoping to transfer.

Students and parents involved in the college admissions process today have access to more (and more complete) information about individual colleges than ever before. Numerous websites offer volumes of subjective information about student experiences at individual colleges. Toward the more objective end of the college information spectrum, there is no shortage of resources, either. Selingo’s book takes a balanced look at a variety of college assessment tools, from the US News rankings to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and National Survey of Student Engagement as well as recent studies of graduates’ earnings by college and by major. An article in the New York Times this summer also surveys online tools that have been created to help students “make informed decisions about whether it’s worth paying a premium for a certain college or degree.” And of course, the federal government’s “College Scorecard”  and the “College Navigator” website run by the National Center for Education Statistics provide a wealth of data, too. The determined student (or parent) can spend hours combing through this information in an attempt to discover “what they will get” if they pick a certain college.

I am not arguing against careful research and data collection as one explores colleges. And I don’t dispute that this information can assuage some of the uncertainty involved in the process of applying to and choosing a college to attend. But too many students focus on data collection at the expense of data contextualization. Collecting the data – assembling the picture of a college – is the easy part. Contextualizing that information – locating yourself within that picture – is the hard part.

Much of the discussion around the topic of assessing colleges and outcomes upon graduation tends to take the individual out of the picture. In some accounts, it seems that the key to success lies simply in gaining admission to a top-ranked college that posts top results on surveys of student learning. Once enrolled, you choose a major that posts the best starting salaries for graduates (or best lifetime return on investment, if you prefer) and you’re set for life. The path to success is already well-marked. All a student has to do is follow it.

It strikes me that attempts to predict the college experience and its outcomes through surveys, rankings, and ratings of colleges may undermine an individual student’s sense of responsibility and agency in the admissions process. Some students I’ve talked to seem to feel that decisions about which colleges are “best” have already been made, independent of their input, and that their task is simply to apply to the schools topping the various rankings and surveys. They feel as though their options are limited, and that choices contravening the status quo aren’t well received by parents and peers.

I also wonder if, by so actively trying to diminish uncertainty in the college admissions process, we are unintentionally encouraging students to “cease to believe in the unknowable,” and in its partners, chance and serendipity? That would be a great shame.

So many un-quantifiable and often serendipitous events influence a student’s experience on a campus: Do you get along with your roommate? Did you discover a topic or project that really fascinates you? Did a staff or faculty member become a mentor to you? Being open to the “known unknowns,” and being willing to take the “road less traveled” can make all the difference to a student while enrolled, and in the years after graduation.

I’m all for due diligence, and all in favor of using available data to guide the college selection process. It’s important, though to acknowledge the limits of the data one collects, to carve out space for oneself in the picture, and to allow for the “unknowable.” The college admissions process provides a unique opportunity to teach students how to use the information they collect, and to help them learn if, when, and how that data applies – or does not apply – to their specific situations. It offers a great opportunity to learn that data can mask the uncertainty inherent in this process, and that ultimately, (with apologies to Shakespeare) the outcome, dear Brutus, lies not in the data, but in ourselves.

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