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.

“It ain’t nothing till I call it”

In January of 2003, the New Yorker magazine ran a short piece by Nick Paumgarten in which the scholar Stanley Fish related one of his favorite baseball stories. The central character was a well-known major league umpire named Bill Klem. Here is the story:

“Klem’s behind the plate…the pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The batter turns around and says, ‘OK, so what was it, ball or a strike?’ And Klem says, ‘Sonny, it ain’t nothing ‘till I call it.’”

The article continued with Fish’s commentary:

“What the batter is assuming is that balls and strikes are facts in the world and that the umpire’s job is to accurately say which one each pitch is. But in fact balls and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire.”

It seems to me that this story and Fish’s remarks have equal relevance for the college admissions process.

At this moment in our culture, most people are inclined to believe that within the universe of colleges, a separate and select subset of good colleges exists, as “facts in the world.” This explains why college counselors continually hear comments like: “I haven’t heard of that school. Is it a good college?” and “I’m not sure which school I want to go to, I just want to be sure it’s a good college.”

There are many problems with the view that a small subset of objectively derived “good colleges” exists, and that we can rely on designated umpires to say which colleges are which. Chief among these is that most people don’t think carefully about who makes the call as to whether a college is “good” or not. Most often, we regress to the lowest common denominator when choosing umpires to assess what is “good.” Familiarity and name recognition are oft-used arbiters when judging colleges, as in “if we haven’t heard of it, it can’t be a good college.” The US News &World Report (USNWR) and other college rankings often serve as umpires in the college quality sweepstakes. (If it’s in the USNWR top twenty, it’s good, or so the thinking goes.) And selectivity (the percentage of students admitted to a college) is frequently cited as a means of identifying a good college, since many people seem to believe that the more students a college turns away, the better it is. It is undeniably quicker and easier to make use of an outside umpire than to put in the time, do the research, and make the call yourself, but that strategy doesn’t pay off in the long run.

In my work with students, a primary goal of the college counseling process is to help each one understand that a college ain’t nothing – good or bad – till he or she calls it. That is, it’s the individual student’s experience at a particular college that makes the college “good” or not. We all know students who have attended well-known colleges and been unhappy with their experiences there. And the world is full of people who went to less well-known or less selective colleges and who had their lives transformed by fabulous teachers, who made terrific friends, and who have gone on to have happy and successful lives. Deciding whether a college is “good” or not is a complex process, and your individual call may change while you are there, and as you reflect on the place in the years after you leave it.

Ideally, in this phase of their lives, students will be able to take control of their college search and application processes and develop the confidence to make the tough calls at the critical moments. Those of us on the sidelines can remind high school seniors that the process of researching and choosing colleges is simply a new context in which to make use of skills they have been using (we hope!) throughout high school. They are gathering information and analyzing and interpreting the results of their research. These days, however, when college admissions is such a hot topic in the media, students can’t help but be deluged with a range of information and opinions about colleges as they move through the admissions cycle. As a result, they often feel overwhelmed and insecure about making their own independent calls. College counselors see this insecurity surface early in the admissions cycle when students just can’t seem to finalize a list of colleges to apply to, and at the end of the cycle, when students fortunate to have multiple offers of admission struggle to make a final choice about which college to attend. At that point (the bottom of the ninth inning, so to speak) we hope that students will be able to look beyond the shorthand measures of popularity, rankings, and selectivity as they weigh options and make their choices.

Because, really, the individual student will make or break his/her experience at any school. That means that every college can be a “good” college, if the student has the skill, strength, and spirit to make it so.

(Need some motivation to get into the game? Here’s a little inspiration from Frank and Gene.)


A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Head-Royce School magazine, Summer 2007.