Sunday, November 3, 2019

The College Craze

            When my older daughter earned a C+ in Geometry Advanced as a freshman, it might have seemed to some like a disappointment. But to Katie (and her parents), it turned out to be a pretty big relief.

            With that one C+, Katie had likely removed herself from consideration for admission to the elite universities in America. And she had absolutely no problem with that.

            We are living through an educational era dominated by the competition of college admissions. Over the past two decades, universities have managed to lower their acceptance rates, increase their tuitions, and draw students and parents into a frenzy over which school will accept them, and what that will mean for their futures.

            Journalists such as Frank Bruni and Paul Tough have written eloquently about this topic, using research- and anecdotal-based evidence to show that this frenzy is unnecessary. Studies reveal that hard work and character mean more to an individual’s life success than which undergraduate school he or she attended. But that message has not been received by many.

            We’ve reached a point where college preparation is part of the focus even for middle-schoolers. The colleges are able to direct their admissions departments to consider not only GPA and standardized test scores for admissions decisions, but also courseload difficulty. This leads some students to take anywhere from four to six advanced classes per year. While there will always be some students for whom this is actually doable and enjoyable, there are many more for whom this means incredible stress and nowhere near enough sleep.

            The interesting thing about this college crunch is that no student knows for sure which university will be best for him or her. I am living proof of that. As I applied to colleges during the autumn of my senior year, I had never earned a grade lower than A, and was on my way to tying for the school’s highest GPA. I had pressured myself to study harder and harder throughout high school, and I expected the highest of rewards from college admissions offices.

            But when the responses came in, I was disappointed. Harvard said no. So did Princeton. And Brown. Georgetown, too. The University of Virginia added its own rejection.

            I was a valedictorian, yet I’d received more rejections than acceptances. As I enrolled in the University of North Carolina, I found myself disappointed and thought I was settling for less than I deserved. Of course, as I arrived in Chapel Hill, I immediately recognized that this was a special place. It was a school that asked me to work hard academically while also living a balanced life. I was expected to spend hours studying in Davis Library, yet also spend hours in line waiting for UNC-Duke basketball tickets. I was to write papers, but also write for the school newspaper. I sat for long lectures, but also sat down for dinner with my friends.

            If you had offered me, halfway through my freshman year, a spot at Princeton or Georgetown, I would have turned you down. Because I’d realized that the school I was attending was in fact the best fit for me. This was the place where I could grow in the ways I needed most. Back in high school, there was no way for me to know this for sure. I had to trust the process, and recognize that there was so much I didn’t know about my future needs.

            It’s so hard to recognize this when everyone else is talking about the college pressures. It’s hard to take a deep breath and believe that it will truly turn out fine, and that most of the undergraduate schools out there are actually offering tremendous opportunities for us to grow and feel challenged. It’s hard to realize that the schools many students attend for graduate school might actually mean more toward their career path, particularly with regard to location.

            As educators, we remain deeply concerned about the college crunch. We keep sharing current research along with our own experiences when we talk with students and parents. We hope that they hear our encouragement to live in the moment and stop checking the grade portal every hour. We encourage students to fully experience high school rather than “doing school.” We encourage them to recognize that whichever school they attend, there will be so much opportunity for success.

            As for my daughter, she has completed most of her applications, and has gone on most of her visits. She has a dream school, but knows it might not offer a financial package we can afford. She has other schools in mind as well. She wants to be a nurse, and knows there are many schools prepared to educate her well in that field. She has a guidance counselor who reassures her that she is on a path toward true success.

            I recently finished the payments that make me a lifetime alumni of the college I attended for undergraduate school. It wasn’t a huge payment, but it was a way of saying thank you to the school that gave me what I needed, even when I didn’t know that myself. It was a way of wishing that all our students could recognize that this is possible for each and every one of them. Hard work, character, an openness to new ideas, true friendships – these are the things we need as we grow, at all ages. If the university we attend encourages these things, we are in good hands. We will be just fine.