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!


Still waiting around…

In this post, I continue to look at the waiting list and factors that can make this process so stressful for students. Chief among these factors is the mountain of advice available to those in waiting list limbo. A quick Google search this week for “what to do when you’re on a waiting list for college” yielded about 95,000,000 results, and a random look at some of the search results revealed lots of contradictory information. For just about every action advised in the articles I read, it was possible to find other articles telling students NOT to take that action.

I have paraphrased below some of the “point-counterpoint” advice I found across multiple sites:

Be persistent.
Don’t be a pest.

Launch a heavy-duty marketing campaign, and if you have a gimmick you can use to distinguish yourself, use it. It can’t hurt.
Don’t go overboard, and don’t rely on gimmicks. You’ll only look desperate.

Do what the college tells you to do, and nothing more.
Work the system, and use any connections you and your parents have to help make your case for admission.

Visit the campus and ask for an interview.
Stay away from the campus, because being around all the newly-admitted students will just make you feel bad.

With all the contradictory information available to students, it is hard for them to discern which information matters and which does not. (An engineer might look at this situation and say that the “signal to noise ratio” is way out of whack.) Things are further complicated because procedures for students on the waiting list are not standardized: there are multiple “signals” that students must pick out from the surrounding “noise.”  So around and around we go…often with the result that much time and effort is expended by students, parents, and college counselors in pursuit of an outcome which may be highly unlikely.

Another quirk of this process is that no matter how unlikely the possibility of being admitted from a given waiting list may be, students often feel that the school where they are waitlisted is somehow superior to the school or schools where they hold offers of admission. Sometimes the reason for this is clear – when the school where the student has been waitlisted is more well-known than the schools where the student has been admitted, or when the waitlisted school is in a more desirable location, for example. There are lots of times, though, when a student’s reasons for preferring a school where s/he hasn’t been admitted remain obscure. (Even to the student him or herself.) There’s an “X factor” at work: it seems that there is just something about the possibility of admission which makes it more compelling than an actual offer of admission.

That “X factor” may be linked to the dopamine reward system in the brain. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here, but will borrow economist Robert Shiller’s summary of several neuroscientific studies on this subject. Shiller writes: “…uncertainty that takes the form of a chance of a future reward is itself stimulative. Nature has built into our brains a tendency to savor the possibility of future rewards…the mere presence of uncertainty in a positive direction creates a pleasurable sensation, so the reward system creates an incentive to take on risky positive bets.” (For more, see Shiller’s book, Finance and the Good Society, chapters six and twenty-one. These quotes come from pages 139-140.)

Viewed through the lens provided by these research findings, it’s easy to see how behaviors related to the waiting list can escalate so quickly. If actions taken in the service of a possible future reward elicit a pleasant neuro-chemical response , it’s not surprising that some students (and parents) pull out all the stops on receipt of a waiting list offer, and spend the month of April trying every tactic they can think of to make that “WL” morph into an “Admit.” The pursuit becomes an end in itself, and the neuro-chemical fun is in the chase, not the outcome. This, come to think of it, may explain why a student will fervently pursue a waiting list spot at a college, receive an offer of admission from that school…and then turn it down.

There are, of course, lots of other plausible reasons why students pursue waiting list offers: some feel that the school where they’ve been waitlisted is truly the only place they will be happy; some feel insulted by being placed on a waiting list, and hope to recover their pride with an eventual admit decision; some students are “trophy hunters,” trying to rack up as many admit offers as they can before the cycle ends; some face pressure from parents, friends, and others in their social group to try to convert the WL to A. The neuroscientific perspective adds another layer of interest to a discussion of waiting list behavior, though, and is intriguing to consider.

The craziness that the waiting list period incurs, regardless of its source, makes this time challenging for students, parents, and college counselors.  On days when things seem bleak, though, it’s reassuring to remember that things turn out well in the end for the majority of students.

In the New York Times “Choice” blog on April 8, Marie Bigham related an interesting anecdote. She cited a college that surveyed its students as entering freshmen, only to find that a significant number said the school was not their first choice. However, by the time those same students were re-surveyed as juniors, a majority asserted that the college was their first choice as freshmen. What a difference those two years made!  I’m sure that many college counselors can share similar stories of students who (anywhere from a few weeks to a few years after the admissions process has concluded) are 100% happy with their chosen college, and can’t imagine why they ever thought any other school else was the right choice.

These observations should be reassuring to students struggling with their options this month. And though it may be hard for them to believe right now, they’ll ultimately realize that the key to success lies in not in any one particular college, but in themselves and in what they make of the opportunities a college education presents.  As one former student of mine counseled a classmate struggling to make a decision: “You’ll be fine.  You just need to trust the force, Luke!”


Are we better off now?

One of the “historical documents” in my files is the May,1989 issue of Money magazine, featuring this cover:

You have to admit that headline “The Sacrifice of the Children” and the cover image are attention-grabbers. So is the title of the main story inside the magazine: “The Agony of College Admissions.”

The college admissions scene was in bad shape then, at least according to Money magazine.   Is it in better shape now?

On the whole, I’d have to say no.  I think the admissions scene is crazier in 2012 than it was in 1989.  Much has changed on the college side of the admissions process in the past 23 years, but the way the process is experienced by students has not.

Several factors have amplified the stress and pressure high school students feel as they apply to college. In a nutshell, these are:

* Demographics: the number of high school graduates in the US remains at an all-time high, and because many colleges and universities now seek students from all around the world, instead of from their home regions, competition for space in the entering classes at many colleges has increased significantly. Application numbers are up, and where colleges have not increased the size of their entering classes, admission rates are down.

* The prevailing view that there is only a small group of “good” colleges out there. From this follows the proposition that you will only be successful if you attend one of those “good” colleges…which leads to the perception of college admissions as a high-stakes contest. This annual drama of “who gets in” has a strong grip on our attention.

* The explosion of “experts” offering advice and opinion about colleges and the admission process. The questions “what’s the “best school” and “what do I have to do to get in” can be hideously compelling to high school students and their parents. Many publications, websites, and individuals have rushed to help students answer those questions. Particularly interesting to me is the rise of the “citizen counselor” — those individuals who don’t have a lot of experience with the admissions process, but who are able to sell their advice and opinions nonetheless.

* Making the private, public. This is obvious, but the ease with which students can share impressions, anxieties, rumors and wild untruths about the application process with each other has ramped up the stress for everyone involved.

I’ll write more about these topics, among others, in future posts.