Recommended viewing/listening

Over the past few weeks, while the weather here was not as conducive to being outside as one might wish, I had a chance to catch up on three programs focusing on aspects of education and college admissions. Two are podcasts, one is a documentary film – they look at different topics from very different vantage points – and each one is entertaining and informative. I think many college counselors and admissions officers will find them as interesting as I have.

The documentary is part of the PBS “POV” series – it’s called American Promise. The film follows two African-American boys in New York City over the course of thirteen years, from elementary school through high school graduation. It’s a fascinating film throughout, though the family interactions are uncomfortable to view at times — especially when one of the boys receives his college admission results.   It looks as though PBS isn’t offering the film for streaming online now, but a trailer and clips are available on the website. Many PBS documentaries also become available through Netflix, and this one should, too. It’s definitely worth putting on the “save” list.
Details at the PBS website:

The two podcasts are episodes from programs I listen to regularly: This American Life, and Planet Money.

The podcast “How I Got into College” has two parts – the first is a discussion about mistakes applicants (and their parents) make in the admissions process, with Rick Clark from the admissions office at Georgia Tech. The second part is contributed by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and several other (wonderful) books. Lewis is a great storyteller, and in this podcast, he introduces listeners to Emir Kamenica, now a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. I don’t know how in the world these two ever crossed paths, but Lewis was intrigued by Kamenica’s narrative about (as the blurb on the episode web page puts it) “how a stolen library book got one man into his dream school.” It’s a terrific story about the way we construct our life histories, the way others view those histories, and about the things we believe cause or create the opportunities life presents to us. Lewis is a smart, funny, and very engaging interviewer and narrator.

The second podcast, “Duke’s $30,000 Tuition Discount,” investigates the claim often made by private colleges and universities that the education students receive costs more than the sticker price. Hats off to Duke for opening their accounts to the Planet Money team – I’m not sure every university would be willing to do the same. This podcast takes a thorough look at the cost of private higher education – listeners decide for themselves whether spending $60K per year for college is a bargain or not.

Perhaps spring break will provide you with a little time in which to watch or listen to these programs – if not, do bookmark them for summer.

Meanwhile, best wishes to friends and colleagues who are sending out and receiving admissions decisions now. May the force be with you!

(And may appropriately spring-like weather come to all areas of the country…soon!)

Spring last!


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.

Decisions, decisions…

When it comes to describing this late stage in the annual college admissions cycle, TS Eliot got it just right.

“April is the cruellest month” (The Wasteland)

“In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

For me, those two lines perfectly capture the mindset of students trying to make final choices about which college to attend.

The challenge of saying “yes” to one college and “no” to others often takes students by surprise, I’ve found. Most seniors enter the admissions process so focused on figuring out where to and how to apply to college, and so het up about whether they will get in anywhere that they can’t think much beyond submitting their applications. As a result, when April arrives, students fortunate enough to have more than one offer of admission are flabbergasted to discover that making a final choice about which school to attend can be the hardest part of the whole process. This can be true even when one of the admission offers has come from the college long labeled a “first choice.” Oddly, for some students, once several offers of admission are on the table, the offer from that “first choice” college appears less desirable.

Throughout April, many seniors struggle valiantly to compare their options. They make endless “pro” and “con” lists, seek eleventh-hour epiphanies by attending on or off-campus yield events for admitted students, and push the final decision right down to the deadline, creating much angst for themselves in the process.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Dan Ariely’s research on aversion to loss, and how this can prevent us from closing doors on our options: it certainly plays a prominent role as students weigh their college possibilities. (It is especially active in those students who end up double-depositing.) However, I think there is another factor which causes students to struggle with the decision process. I think students hit a wall in the decision process when they find that the “right” answer isn’t the same as the “true” answer.

Stanley Fish explored this distinction between the “right” answer and the “true” answer in a column for the NY Times several years ago. It seems to me that the distinction between the two has relevance for this stage of the admissions process, as well. As students weigh options prior to making a final enrollment decision, they may feel that the “right” choice is the college with the most prestige, or the best financial aid offer, or the one favored by family, friends, or their high school community. Problems arise when the “true” choice, the college they feel is best for them, isn’t the same as the “right” choice.

If the “right” choice and the “true” choice are one in the same, all is well.  But when the “right” choice and the “true” choice are not aligned, students are really in a bind. No one wants to make the wrong decision, especially when the stakes are perceived to be so high. In a time when your choice of college is widely presumed to make or break your future, the pressure is intense.

As I watch students wrestle with their decisions, I often wish there was a magic way to bestow the gift of perspective, to let students look into the future and see that they will be successful no matter which college they choose.  Students on the horns of the “right” vs. “true” dilemma and who are feeling pressure to choose the college with the most prestige, sometimes are relieved to hear about accomplished people who didn’t attend a college or university ranked in the US News “top ten.” Currently, I’m citing Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, who went to Auburn University, and Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, who went to the University of Maryland. I’m also mentioning Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, who has the distinction of having dropped out of two colleges – Northeastern University and UMass at Boston. Conversely, I always like to point out that Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a., the Unabomber) went to Harvard.

Other students find it helpful to read a terrific column that David Brooks published in 2004: “Stressed for Success.” I’ve been referring students to this ever since it was first published, and Brooks’s advice still rings true.  

And if all else fails, I bring out my literary big gun, and offer the quote below from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It resonates especially with those who didn’t receive an offer of admission from a particular college they had fallen in love with. I find that it is helpful on two levels – some students find the message itself reassuring, and other students will force themselves to make a decision just so they don’t have to hear me quote Proust again. But hey, whatever works! May 1 isn’t all that far off.

We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us around it, let us pass it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become.